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Alyson Day of Vancouver is pursuing a master's degree in environmental science, so she knows the impact that she and other Vancouver residents can have on delicate ecosystems such as the Salmon Creek watershed.
"The water that runs off my roof goes into this creek," Day said, shortly after planting a Douglas fir sapling near the creek. "This is my neighborhood, so I feel committed."
Day was one of hundreds of volunteers who got a head start on celebrating Earth Day by planting trees and ripping up pesky nonnative plants Saturday at the Salmon Creek Regional Park in Vancouver. Earth Day falls on Monday this year.
Their efforts were part of a family-friendly eco fair put on by Clark Public Utilities' StreamTeam.
In Clark County, "99.9 percent of people get their water from groundwater," said Jeff Wittler, Clark Public Utilities environmental resources manager. So it just makes sense for the utility to foster programs that help improve water quality, he added.
Most of the utility's wells are so clean that they require no water treatment, but "if we don't protect that water quality, it gets terribly expensive to clean it up," Wittler said.
Salmon Creek's water quality problems include rising water temperatures, which allow algae blooms to thrive; fecal bacteria from nearby septic tanks; high amounts of sediment caused by flooding and bank erosion; and decreased oxygen levels caused by the algae blooms, Wittler said. Invasive plants such as garlic mustard "bully" and edge out native plant species that are vital to the health of the creek, he added.
"It's so aggressive and has so many seeds per plant," Wittler said. The seeds are easily transported when people and animals walk through the woods; the eco fair included a shoe-washing station to remove those seeds from volunteers' feet.
The fair included educational booths with information about how be kinder to nature. For example, one booth warned against including plastic bags in recycling containers. Plastic bags clog up the machines that sort recycled materials. Another booth taught how to identify nonnative plants.
Those attending the eco fair also had the chance to get up close to Northwest birds of prey, including a shiny black raven, a carcass-eating turkey vulture, a majestic spotted owl and an American kestrel, the region's smallest species of falcon.
Saturday's volunteers fought to protect Salmon Creek's water quality by planting a variety of cedar, Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, Oregon ash and cottonwood trees near the waterway.
As they grow, the trees will provide shade to reduce water temperatures. The trees will help other native plant species thrive, as will removing the garlic mustard plants. Native vegetation helps filter impurities from the groundwater, Wittler said.
The tree-planting effort began humbly nearly two decades ago, with a group of utility workers volunteering their time on the occasional weekend, Wittler said. The program expanded in the late 1990s, when the district joined forces with the AmeriCorps organization, which put out the call for volunteers from the general public.
"We want to help people get connected to these areas," Wittler said. "They will value them more."
During the past year, the StreamTeam program had 1,200 volunteers helping with various projects. Saturday's eco fair drew roughly 400 volunteers who planted about 1,500 new trees near the creek. More than 30 Clark Public Utilities workers also volunteered their time to help with the event.
Helping and learning
Day, the master's student, was joined Saturday by Cascade Middle School eighth-grade science teacher Kristi Nygaard and a group of their students. Through a federal program, Day visits the classroom to talk science a couple times a week. She also takes the students on learning adventures at Burnt Bridge Creek in Vancouver.
"It's changed so many of the kids' lives," Nygaard said of the program and hands-on activities like the eco fair. Some of her students lacked a passion for science and learning in general, but "now they are just little environmental stewards."
Two of her students were all smiles on Saturday when they described their work at Burnt Bridge Creek, and their volunteer efforts at Salmon Creek.
"We test the water," one of Nygaard's students, 13-year-old Darian Laub, said. "We look at the macroinvertebrates in there."
Those are "the bugs," she clarified.
"You get to help the environment by planting trees, which helps with oxygen," another Cascade student, 14-year-old Delaney Ferguson, said of Saturday's event. "I thought (tree planting) was going to be hard, but it was fun."