For the first time in the nine years Wilson Valentine has lived near the headwaters of Duck Creek, he has seen fish in the stream.
"It was exciting to see because we're all the way at the headwaters, and now there are salmon getting that far," Valentine said.
Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon biologist K Koski walked along the creek near its headwaters above Taku Boulevard and pointed to gravel in the streambed where coho had laid their eggs. Several red and green spawning adults hung fire in the fast-flowing water and wriggled away in a cloudy rush.
"It's good to see them in here," Koski said. "It really is. Hopefully, we can get it fixed up."
Spring-fed Duck Creek - which winds for about 3 1/2 miles through subdivisions next to Mendenhall Loop Road before it flows into Gastineau Channel at Juneau Airport - is on a state list of "impaired" streams.
Scientists say years of runoff of pollutants and dirt from developed lands, and an upwelling of rusting iron particles from the groundwater, have damaged the habitat for salmon by covering up the gravel they lay eggs in and reducing the oxygen in the water. The stream sometimes runs dry, as well.
Wild chum are extinct in the stream, although some hatchery fish wander into the creek's lower reaches, Koski said. Coho that overwintered as juveniles sometimes return as adults to spawn, but their eggs don't survive. The fry of some cutthroat trout survive.
The adult cohos Valentine saw are part of a large run in northern Southeast, said Koski, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who has studied Duck Creek. Recent heavy rains have helped fill the stream with water, making it easier for the salmon to move upstream.
But human efforts in recent years to restore the stream haven't hurt, he said. And the larger-than-usual coho run this year, although due to natural causes, is an example of what Duck Creek could see in the future if more efforts are made to increase the stream's flow and reduce barriers to fish movement.
The Duck Creek Advisory Group, composed of citizens, business people and government agencies, has built projects on the stream to show how it can be restored. Its members have replaced small culverts at road crossings with larger ones, turned iron-filled dredge ponds into green marshes that filter sediment, and lined part of the streambed to keep the water in.
In an pilot project near Taku Boulevard to see if some of the rust can be removed from the stream, Koski and Dr. Ed Herricks of the University of Illinois have installed a machine that collects stream water and sediment and pumps it through a bag filter, beating like a heart, before returning the cleaned water to the creek.
They'd like to do more. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the spring of 2000 offered $2.75 million to restore Duck Creek if the city would contribute $1.25 million in cash, materials or work. But that project still awaits agreement of the parties.
"The Corps of Engineers is still working with CBJ and NMFS and the rest of the Duck Creek Advisory Group to get a project going," said Bill Abadie, a biologist with the Corps in Anchorage.
The Corps' completion of an environmental assessment was delayed after the Juneau Airport asked the agency to consider whether improved fish habitat in Duck Creek, which passes by the north end of the runway, would lead to more birds congregating at the airport.
Airport officials have been concerned for years that birds, some of which are attracted by fish carcasses in streams, are a hazard to aircraft.
"We do have a serious wildlife management problem on the airport. And Duck Creek, for obvious reasons, does contribute to that," said airport manager Allan Heese.
Airport officials would like to move Duck Creek away from the runway as part of projects to improve runway safety and develop vacant land for hangars. Those projects await completion of an environmental impact statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a report for the Corps, said the proposed stream improvements would enable chums to move further upstream and spawn there, away from the airport. Even with better fish habitat, Duck Creek's populations of fish will be small compared to other streams, the report added.
"It will make some good habitat away from the airport, which is probably a good thing," said Steve Brockmann, project planning branch chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Juneau.
The restoration project also has been delayed by discussions over a proposal to pipe water from Nugget Creek, near the Mendenhall Glacier, to Duck Creek to add to its water flow. Although much of the pipe would be on national forest land, the city was concerned about maintenance costs, liability and flooding, said Rorie Watt of the city Engineering Department.
"It just didn't seem like a very good idea. It was substantially expensive," he added.
Abadie of the Corps said the idea still is under discussion but would need its own environmental analysis. Meanwhile, the rest of the work is worth doing first, he said.
Abadie said a revised environmental assessment for the restoration project could be done by year end. The city would have to agree to pay 35 percent of the costs through cash, work or materials. The city would do some of that work, such as replacing culverts, as it upgrades streets anyway, said Watt.
City Assembly member Dale Anderson called it a "very worthwhile project," but said the city would have to weigh its expenses against other proposed projects such as a new high school, recreation center and swimming pool in the Mendenhall Valley.
Heese of the airport said the public hasn't commented much on the project.
"The idea of making the creek good for fish is good for fish - but if it attracts bears and we have more human-bear interaction how will we deal with that?
"The smell of rotting salmon is not a very attractive thing. If we end up with more rotting salmon in people's back yards, what will people think of that?" Heese asked.
Valentine, who lives near the creek, said he's glad to see that the restoration efforts seem to be working.
"The stream is alive," he said. "A stream is a living thing, and it just seems proper to have fish in it."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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