Outer East Portland Johnson Creek project tames floods, aids fish

Discover why the city is spending $5 Million to “undo” a 1940s “creek improvement project” that experts say actually causes flooding and declining fish population, instead of preventing it‚

Bureau of Environmental Services director, Dean Marriott, pinpoints the built-up highlands which B.E.S. is now returning to wetlands.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Walking through a wooded area, just off the Springwater Trail near SE Foster Rd at SE 158th Ave., we hear the roar of heavy earth-moving equipment in the distance.

Bureau of Environmental Services director Dean Marriott is our guide, as we hike along Johnson Creek. “We’re walking into the Brownwood Site here along Johnson Creek. This represents the fourth restoration project we’ve embarked on,” he tells us.

“We’re undoing what was done in the 1940s,” Marriott explains, “in an effort to reduce flooding; WPA workers brought in a lot of fill material to straighten the creek. Their project made flooding worse.”

From creek to sluiceway‚ and back to creek
Fish don’t do well in rock-lined channel, Marriott comments. “When they altered the creek, they pushed it to the south in a rock-lined channel. It became a sluiceway, instead of a natural creek.

The new $5 Million restoration project, Marriott explains, will minimize future flooding. But more importantly, it will improve the health of the watershed, including fish habitat.

As we break through to the work area, we see a massive earth-moving effort underway. “We’re taking about 150,000 cubic yards of dirt and fill out of the historic flood plain, and recreating the natural landscape,” explains Marriott. “We’re replicating what nature intended. We’re restoring the back channels, meanderings, and crookedness of the creek. When we’re done, next year, it will look just the way Mother Nature intended it to look.”

Specifically, Marriott goes on, the project restores natural terrain features. The water will slow down and have areas that can flood without doing any damage, and recharge the groundwater.

Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, and Lisa Libby of B.E.S., look at the creek restoration work done at the “Brownwood Site” in outer East Portland.

Walking Portland’s environmental talk
At the main work area, we meet Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams. “This is a major project to undo some anti-environmental work done by the WPA,” he confirms. “This is a major step forward; restoring the habitat for fish and wildlife, here on the East Powell Butte flood plain.”

Adams says that the $5 million cost of the project is well spent. “In spite of the fact that Portland has a ‘very green city’ self-identity, we still have major environmental issues to address‚ especially in this area of Portland. We still have two species of salmon that are endangered, because of the poor health of Johnson Creek.”

The commissioner says restoration projects like this are a “point of personal passion for me. I want to see Portland ‘walk its talk’ in terms of environmental responsibility.

“Beyond helping the environment, a practical benefit restoring the original ecosystem of the floodplain — above the more populated areas — is that it will prevent flooding in the commercial and residential districts downstream.”

J.C. Watershed Counsel grants $600,000
While touring the restoration site, we learn from the executive director of the Johnson creek Watershed Council, Michelle Bussard, that the group worked with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board to develop a $600,000 fund for the project.

“This project really represents our values around the health and prosperity of our watershed. This is putting our money where our mouth is.”

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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