Litter and off-road riders assail Jordan Creek

Posted: Sunday, July 10, 2005

Jordan Creek just can't get respect. Scattered mounds of trash and churned-up banks at illegal stream crossings are taking a toll on the productive coho salmon stream in the Mendenhall Valley.

Though the 3-mile-long creek violates state water pollution rules and is listed as impaired under the Clean Water Act, it "still has a lot of character left to it. It's worth maintaining," said Neil Stichert, a habitat restoration biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau.

Since 2001, between 9,000 and 26,000 coho smolt have migrated to the ocean annually from Jordan Creek.

The biggest conundrum is how to save the small stream and its fish from getting choked by urban trash and dirt, like countless other streams in U.S. cities.

According to state officials, the major source of debris in Jordan Creek is littering and improperly stored garbage nearby.

A number of projects sprout up annually to help heal the creek's wounds.

For example, Stichert is working with a crew of volunteers from Southeast Alaska Guidance Association (SAGA) this week on a small project to restore an upper part of the creek trampled by off-road vehicles.

"This is like a party spot back here," whispered one volunteer to another, glancing at a streamside fire pit littered with beer bottles and an abandoned North Face down vest on Friday afternoon.

Both Jordan Creek and the Mendenhall Valley's other urban stream, Duck Creek, are assailed by trash but they are critical overwintering areas for juvenile fish - salmon and perhaps even steelhead and cutthroat trout, as well - that migrate up from the Mendenhall Wetlands.

The fish rear all summer long in the wetlands and when they sense winter coming on, they move up to whichever stream is nearby, seeking warmer water, said K Koski, a Juneau biologist.

"It's a life history strategy that we are finding more and more about. It is somewhat unique. It's not a well-known characteristic of coho salmon," Koski said.

Some of the biggest harm to Jordan Creek is occurring in the upper creek's coho spawning area, where people are driving their vehicles straight through the creek.

"This is where all the coho spawn," Stichert said to SAGA volunteers Friday, indicating the creek's dried gravel stream bed, dotted with pools swarming with tiny stranded coho.

Nearby, a dirt road crosses through the stream bed and loose dirt is caving into the channel. When the stream fills with water again, "all of the soil here is going to be transported downstream," Stichert said.

The sediment clogs up the gravel and that causes the dissolved oxygen necessary for fish egg survival to drop to "very, very low" levels, said Lori Sowa, an specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

The creek violates three state water quality rules - for debris, sediment and dissolved oxygen - all of which can harm fish trying to get to their spawning area or hatch out.

People "are definitely not supposed to be riding through fish streams," said Bob Grochow, city parks superintendent, adding that it violates local, state and federal laws.

The upper creek is one of many access points in the Mendenhall Valley to a network of historic, unofficial trails, some built during logging projects.

Whenever the city closes off one access point to the creek - using barricades such as chains, signs or a large rock - people are very adept at finding another way in, Grochow said.

"Things are getting kind of ripped up" Grochow said. "It's a tough thing to enforce. We'll just keep at it," he said.

"The other thing is to pursue alternative riding areas for folks. That's been a challenge for years, finding those kind of places in (Juneau) where there aren't salmon streams and wetlands," Grochow said.

At this time, there isn't much opportunity for off-road riding on public land in the Juneau area, he said.

Others are pursuing remedies that are specifically directed at the creek. These include:

• Decommissioning unofficial trails that traverse the creek.

• Volunteer trash cleanups.

• Watershed recovery and management planning.

• Setting pollution standards in the creek.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recently finalized a pollution standard for debris in the creek. The standard is for zero dumping.

The department is still working on developing pollution standards, called Total Maximum Daily Loads, for dissolved oxygen and sediment.

Regulators and stream advocates said it's a constant battle to keep the creek clean.

"The (annual spring) cleanup is our biggest action," said Mark Jaqua, with the Mendenhall Watershed Partnership.

"It gets people out and involved. They kind of take ownership. Once you've cleaned up a certain area, you start paying attention when it's not very nice," Jaqua said.

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