About this series
Metro has invested in community nature projects for more than 25 years. Through this occasional series in 2017-18, we’ll revisit projects that previously received Nature in Neighborhoods grants or local share money to find out where the projects are now and what difference Metro’s investments made.
As of early 2017, Metro is not accepting Nature in Neighborhoods grants applications. Grants paid for with money from the 2006 bond measure and 2013 parks and natural areas levy have all been awarded.
In November 2016, voters renewed the Metro parks and natural areas levy. Money from the levy renewal will be available starting in July 2018, and more Nature in Neighborhoods grants will be available then.
For generations, Johnson Creek was unhealthy: a creek no longer home to salmon, lacking trees and shrubs along its banks, its shores serving as loading docks for industry. Nearby residents mostly ignored the 26-mile artery that flows into Willamette River in Milwaukie -- except when it flooded homes and roads in the worst of weather.
Now Johnson Creek is slowly being nursed back to health through the methodical efforts of community organizations, volunteers and government agencies. Metro has contributed to those efforts with seven Nature in Neighborhoods grants over the years, including five to the nonprofit Johnson Creek Watershed Council. The grants have paid for projects that rely on science to make strategic, effective investments that help restore the watershed and connect people to nature.
The grants helped pay to replace culverts, plant trees and reforest surrounding habitat, all of which are small steps toward the larger goal of restoring healthy runs of salmon and other fish.
“Salmon were nearly wiped out from Johnson Creek, but now their population is increasing,” said Daniel Newberry, the watershed council’s executive director. “That’s an indicator that the watershed’s health is improving and the investments in restoration are paying off.”
The Johnson Creek Watershed Council, formed 22 years ago, relies heavily on science-tested data to set priorities for improving a watershed that encompasses 54 square miles in two counties and five cities.
The council in 2015 adopted a 10-year action plan that established a vision and goals for six areas of concern: fish; riparian forests, water quality, wildlife, people and science. The inclusion of science highlights the council’s desire to get the most bang for its limited bucks, an approach it took with its Nature in Neighborhood grants.
For example, in 2013 and 2014, the council analyzed 273 troublesome culverts that block or impede fish passage and that are in need of improvement or replacement. It established a list of 18 priority projects based not on cost but on their impact on fish migration.
Investing in Johnson Creek
Metro’s Nature in Neighborhoods grants program provides money to community groups, nonprofits, governments and other groups for community nature projects. The grants are paid for with money from the 2006 natural areas bond measure and the 2013 parks and natural areas levy. Several recent grants have paid for restoration work and nature education programming in the Johnson Creek watershed.
2014 restoration grant to Friends of Trees, $43,000: This grant relied on volunteers to help increase and expand revegetation efforts at eight natural areas in the Johnson Creek watershed.
2014 restoration grant to Johnson Creek Watershed Council, $58,000: This grant helped remove two high-priority fish passage barriers, allowing fish to access upstream natural areas and enhancing the larger ecosystem for threatened salmon and trout.
2014 restoration grant to Johnson Creek Watershed Council, $25,000: This grant allowed the reforestation of riparian habitat, which provides shade to Johnson Creek and its tributaries so the lower water temperature can support fish.
2015 restoration grant to Johnson Creek Watershed Council, $25,000: This grant replaced two undersized culverts under the Springwater Trail, allowing salmon to access 1.6 miles of lower Badger Creek, a tributary of Johnson Creek.
2015 restoration grant to Johnson Creek Watershed Council, $19,866: This grant helped engage local residents, including members of underserved communities, to maintain sites with recent plantings and to plant new trees and shrubs in wetlands areas.
2015 conservation education grant, Wisdom of the Elders, Inc., $75,000: This grant supported nature education and workforce development programs that provide Native Americans with culturally tailored workforce training, environmental service learning and career pathways. The grant also expanded classroom and hands-on service learning in local natural areas for Native American youths and multicultural students in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
2016 restoration grant, Johnson Creek Watershed Council, $30,000: This grant paid for workforce training crews from communities of color to plant native trees and shrubs on private property, providing shade to cool the water.
One of those priority projects was the Badger Creek culvert, beneath the Springwater Trail near Southeast Telford and Rugg roads south of Gresham. A $25,000 Nature in Neighborhoods grant helped pay to replace the culvert in 2016, one of three culverts to be replaced or retrofitted partly using Metro grant money.
The council has reached out to the scientific community by hosting Science Symposiums the past two years, creating valuable information exchanges. It also coordinates with cities, counties and conservation districts to pay for research on stream flow and temperatures, and it surveys regularly for evidence of salmon, steelhead and lamprey. The council hosts Science Talks to share information with the public.
“Our mission has two parts,” Newberry said. “Science-based restoration is a big part of it, but the second part is community engagement. We get the community involved in taking care of the watershed.”
Much of that involvement is on sites owned by the City of Portland, which has worked for decades to improve Johnson Creek and its Crystal Springs Creek tributary.
Susan Hawes, the Portland Parks & Recreation stewardship coordinator for the Johnson Creek watershed, said the Metro grants contribute to the collaboration among many organizations in the watershed.
“A lot of projects we wanted to get done, but would not have been able to do them on our own without the work of these organizations,” she said. “It has made a huge difference in terms of accomplishing our goals.”
Connecting people to nature
Another strategic restoration effort is reforestation. The lack of tree cover in many riparian areas exposes creeks to sunlight that makes waterways too warm for fish habitat.
Reforestation is typically a three-year process, Newberry said. The first year is spent removing invasive species. The second year is spent treating the soil and planting native trees and shrubs. The third year is spent fending off the return of invasive species and providing mulch to the new plantings.
The difficult multi-year work of reforestation can cost $5,000 to $6,000 per acre, Newberry estimated. Using volunteers can cut that cost by at least half. Enlisting volunteers also has the added benefit of connecting people to their environment.
A Nature in Neighborhoods restoration grant in 2014 to Friends of Trees was built around the idea of involving community members in watershed restoration. The $43,000 grant helped pay for work in eight natural areas. The nonprofit engaged about 1,000 volunteers during 26 workdays of site preparation and maintenance.
Volunteers help tell the story of the Johnson Creek watershed, said Logan Lauvray, Friends of Trees’ green space manager. “I feel like there is growing awareness of the importance of the watershed,” he said.
A $30,000 grant in 2016 to the Johnson Creek Watershed Council paid for native trees and shrubs to be planted on private property to provide shade to cool the water. The council hired crews from culturally focused organizations including Wisdom of the Elders and the African Youth and Community Organization.
The ongoing restoration work provides plenty of reason for optimism that Johnson Creek is on the upswing. But the battle never ends. Though urban flooding occurs less often, new buildings create more runoff that warms water temperatures. New owners of private properties along the creek sometimes cut down trees that provided shade, and illegal campers sometimes destroy riparian vegetation. Even with some of the most damaging culverts removed, hundreds of others remain to impede or block fish.
Dave Stewart, a stream restoration biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife who works with the watershed council, recognizes the uphill battle of restoring habitat in a heavily urbanized stream. He praises the ecological and educational value of the work done by community groups and local governments.
“The council is so good at what they do,” Stewart said. While the urban watershed will never return to its pristine state, the council’s educational work is invaluable and its goal of restoring healthy salmon runs is powerful, he added.
“To restore the creek back to having healthy salmon populations would be amazing,” Stewart said.