In Our View: Saving Mill Creek

University, utility and numerous volunteers are working hard on restoration projects

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Gurgling softly for only about 10 miles, Mill Creek is not among Clark County’s most popular tributaries, but it’s becoming somewhat of a local showcase for environmental advancements. How successful the people of our community are at repairing and preserving Mill Creek will signal to our grandchildren how serious we are about balancing the needs of development with the rights of Mother Nature.

First, a brief geography lesson: Mill Creek’s almost indistinguishable headwaters are in the western portion of Battle Ground proper, with drainage extending west to Dollars Corner, thence south near Northeast 50th Avenue for a couple of miles and through Washington State University Vancouver before Mill Creek’s confluence with Salmon Creek. Many local walkers are familiar with the creek’s natural beauty as they wander the popular trails on the eastern side of the WSUV campus. Interestingly, some wild fish such as steelhead make their way into Mill Creek, yet another demonstration that migratory fish will not easily surrender to the advances of civilization.

For more than a decade and a half, since even before the opening of the campus there in 1996, WSUV officials have had their protective eyes on Mill Creek, and numerous volunteer groups have added elbow grease to various projects. Last year, the campus received “Salmon Safe” certification by a Portland-based organization that goes by the same name.

And now, Clark Public Utilities is joining the effort through its StreamTeam program. Kudos to both the university and the utility as they prepare to accelerate the creek’s restoration program this fall with a bank-stabilization project that will help arrest years of erosion.

The project is funded in part by a state grant received by the utility.

Mill Creek faces assault by more than just the human hand. Himalayan blackberry bushes — the dastardly invasive species that is cursed by developers and environmentalists alike — have already been removed along Mill Creek on the campus, and as Jeff Wittler of Clark Public Utilities noted recently, “We’ll probably be fighting blackberries for a while.”

Native trees such as maple, Oregon ash and cedar have been planted along Mill Creek, and workers have big plans for fortifying creek banks this fall. Those include importing root wads of trees felled elsewhere.

As the native vegetation returns and the creek reclaims its natural characteristics, the true benefits of habit restoration will kick in, quantified — it is hoped — in higher fish counts.

Credit for saving Mill Creek is due more than just the university and the utility. Volunteers have come from a wide variety of sources. Compared to WSUV’s original plans, according to James Martin, facilities operations director at the university, “what we ended up doing was a much larger thing.” And that’s why so many teammates and community events are needed for this multiyear project.

Last year when WSUV received its Salmon Safe designation, the organization’s executive director, Dan Ken, was quoted in a Columbian story: “A lot of the projects that we see are much more urban and landlocked away from any stream. That (WSUV) campus is really an oasis of nature.” Campus features that led to the designation include retention ponds, preserved forest habitat, and drought-resistant native shrubs that minimize water needs and filter stormwater runoff.

The growth of Clark County, though slowed in recent years by the Great Recession, can only be managed properly when these types of environmental projects flourish. The aggressive approach shown by WSUV and Clark Public Utilities is a good example for the rest of the community.