Nestled in a quiet, shady corner of Vancouver’s Pleasant Valley Park is a small, log-strewn pond that now offers refuge for juvenile salmon and steelhead within the Salmon Creek watershed.
It is a project that was started in 2011, but never quite worked out as planned.
However, the project was brought back to life this past weekend, through the hard work of a partnership of local conservation groups, and a crew of hardy volunteers.
The small rearing pond was originally meant to be a cold water refugia for the heavily developed urban watershed, but a design flaw kept it from providing the benefits that were expected.
For years the project sat, as stagnant as the tepid water in the little pond.
However, after the recent work was completed, it will now provide the crucial habitat for wild fish that was the initial intention.
“In 2011, a 5,000 square foot rearing pond area was constructed within Pleasant Valley Park,” reported Jesse Barr, a member of the local Trout Unlimited chapter. “The project intended to create rearing habitat for salmon on an existing spring-fed tributary of Salmon Creek within the park.”
However, the inflow of the creek was placed too close to the outflow, with the result that the cold water simply passed right out of the impoundment as soon as it flowed in, without mixing with the pond water. This left the water too warm for fish.
“In 2019 the Salmon Creek Watershed Council approached us with the idea of changing the water flow in the pond,” said Jim Byrne, the vice president of the Clark County Trout Unlimited chapter, and a former biologist for the WDFW.
Richard Dyrland, a retired Forest Service hydrologist, came up with a plan for the project, and Barr wrote a grant application through the Embrace a Stream Program, which is a matching funds program administered through Trout Unlimited.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the project, and it was put off again. The pond sat for almost 3 more years.
This year the project was finally completed.
The Salmon Creek Watershed Council began to coordinate the effort, the Lower Columbia River Fish Enhancement Group supplied the tools, and the local Trout Unlimited chapter provided the muscle through volunteers. On Saturday, Oct. 9, those volunteers jumped into action.
The crew dug a new channel to funnel the spring water into the top end of the pond, so it would flow through the entire impoundment. Gravel was brought in to line the new channel, and the volunteers seeded and planted the area with native plants.
The result is a small, cold-water pond that is tucked into a quiet nook within the park, ready to provide quality habitat for wild fish. The pond was originally built with large wood in the form of logs to provide cover for juvenile fish, and those were left in place. The pond is also shaded with bank-side shrubs, and large overhead tree cover.
It is important habitat within the Salmon Creek watershed. The stream was once a rural creek with plenty of wild fish, but it has been urbanized and is now within the confines of the city of Vancouver. The watershed is now heavily developed, and is a shadow of its former wild self.
Hard surfaces such as buildings and parking lots dominate much of the watershed, and pollution flows in via the many roadways. Most of the steelhead returning now are from hatchery stock raised in net-pens at the Salmon Creek Park before being released into Salmon Creek.
While there are still wild steelhead and coho salmon, the numbers are nothing compared with what they used to be. The small pond should help the wild juvenile fish within the system survive their rearing years in a couple different ways.
First, it is hoped that the young fish will be drawn by the cold water into the little stream that flows out of the pond and into Salmon Creek just downstream during the summer heat.
The pond will also be used to release thousands of wild juvenile salmon and steelhead saved from drying habitats in the Salmon Creek watershed by Northwest Wild Fish Rescue. The group rescues stranded young fish from habitats that trap them when streams drop during the summer.
The fish will be captured and then released into the pond to make their way back into the main creek when they are ready. Before the channel was adjusted, the water was too warm to do this.
While only a small habitat, cold water refugia of this sort will become ever more important in the warming climate. If these wild, ice-age fish are to survive in urban creeks, these kinds of habitats will be increasingly needed into the long-term future.
Thankfully, volunteer actions such as the work done this past weekend will do a lot to ensure that salmon and steelhead still return to Salmon Creek.