Riparian Rehab with the Tri-State Steelheaders
The Tri-State Steelheaders are an organization based in Walla Walla, aimed
at preserving and restoring aquatic and riparian habitats in the Washington-Idaho-Oregon
intersection. Their local focus is on the Mill Creek and Walla Walla River areas.
Developed in the 1960’s to preserve the local salmon and steelhead fisheries,
Tri-State Steelheaders has grown and expanded over the years, and now fosters
various monitoring and restoration projects. A non-confrontational organization,
they befriend and work with farmers and local residents to better the waterways
and riparian zones. Often, they utilize creek side farms to survey fish habitats
or plant trees, and farmers and residents will invite them to plant on their
land. Thanks to the Steelheaders, local farmers also monitor their own riparian
areas, counting fish or spawning sites and reintroducing native plants.
The loss of native plants and trees in streamside (riparian) habitats along Mill Creek and the Walla Walla River has had detrimental effects on all aquatic life, namely the endangered salmon, steelhead, and bull trout. Rather than “fighting the dams,” the Steelheaders look to act locally, restoring the river to a more natural, stable, and fish-friendly state. By planting native plants along the creek, they re-establish the root systems necessary to hold soils in place, preventing mass wasting and sediment flowing into the waterways. Also, the native plants will hopefully spread and prevent noxious weeds from taking over the area, where their seeds can easily fall into the water and flow downstream, spreading all the way to the Columbia. By planting small trees on the banks of the creek and river, the Tri-State Steelheaders help to restore shade to the water as well as stability to the soils. The trees, as they grow, shade and cool the water, keeping it at a suitable temperature for endangered fish. Baby fish and smolts (adolescent salmon or steelhead) need shaded, cool water to grow old enough to leave the stream. Likewise, fish returning to spawn cannot make the long journey back from the sea in a hot-tub temperature stream! Shade is extremely simple, yet crucially important to fish survival. The Steelheaders also like to fish, and like to share fishing with the community. Every year they bring trout to Bennington Lake and sponsor fishing contests for elementary school students, as well as hotdog cook-offs and picnics for the whole community. The Tri-State Steelheaders have been a part of Walla Walla for a long time, and remain steadily involved with many facets of the public through their programs to integrate rivers, streams, plants, and fish into the area.
John Geidl, a leader of the Tri-State Steelheaders, was our contact for this project. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 529-4184. A friendly fisherman with an elbow-in-the-ribs sense of humor, John was eager to work with us, and loves to get college kids out in the streams. (He also loves donuts, and brought loads of them to our Earth Day planting project!) Likewise, we were excited to get out and start on our first project, which was to be a weekly surveying of Mill Creek. During our first meeting with John at the Tri-State Steelheaders headquarters (just off Isaacs, next to the Asian Garden restaurant), we made plans to recruit and train 20 or so individuals to walk along designated areas of Mill Creek once a week, checking the streambed for steelhead spawning redds. (A redd is the dug-out concavity in the gravel on the stream bottom that a salmon or steelhead makes when spawning. Eggs are laid in the redd and that’s where the baby fish hatch out.) The project was planned to begin in March and continue to graduation weekend, since that was the prime time for finding spawning redds. Through this survey, which would be reported back to the Steelheaders and then to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, we would be able to develop an estimate of the amount of spawning steelhead in the lower Mill Creek area. This project would have taken about two hours a week, for around eight weeks.
Notice that I said, “would have taken!” Perhaps the greatest thing I learned while working with the Tri-State Steelheaders is that the river, no matter what we do to it, has the last say. Humans go around all day assuming they can make plans and that they are invincible to the forces of nature. After all, we have the Army Corps of Engineers, and concrete creeks! But the weather will do what it pleases, and likewise, so will bodies of water, and we are merely at their disposal. So, when the rivers rose numerous times, preventing us from training volunteers to survey the river, we had to roll with it. Late snows and bursts of rain kept the creek swelling on into March, and after spring break the Department of Fish and Wildlife decided not to fund this project, since there was no longer enough time to fully evaluate the habitats. So, we changed horses in midstream (har, har, har) and went for Plan B.
The project that we ended up completing was one that the Steelheaders are famous for: riparian plantings along Mill Creek and the Lower Walla Walla River. This is always a fun project, and many students have already participated in a planting somewhere along the line—usually on Service Saturday or Earth Day. In rain or shine, planting projects are usually located on the outskirts of town, toward College Place or Lowden. Due to the fickle ways of the old river, we had to change our location a couple of times, but eventually settled for a stretch of Mill Creek just outside of College Place, along Mojourner road. We decided to hold the project on Earth Day, since that is a day that most people are willing to volunteer for an ecological project. It was estimated that we would need at least fifteen students to help out. Students in Environmental Studies class signed up for the planting on a sheet that was passed around, and I sent out mega e-mails with big headings like “VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY!!” I suppose it worked pretty well, because a little over twenty people responded, and fifteen came with us on Earth Day.
Tri-State Steelheaders is not much of a taxi service, and does not supply transportation for the outings, so the interns have to be responsible for getting the volunteers to the project site. We secured vans to transport our volunteers a week in advance, but it is a better idea to get them three weeks in advance if you can, since vans can be in high demand, and sometimes it’s a real nail-biter trying to get a hold on one of them! Getting the vans is easy if nobody else has dibs—just dial up Gayle at the Physical Plant (x5999) and she reserves them for you. Since we were leaving at one, we made sure to have the vans ready at our meeting place, Harper Joy Theatre, before lunchtime. The Physical Plant shuts down from noon until one, and if we’d tried to get our vans out then, we’d have been out of luck!
Due to the muddy, brambly nature of working on the edge of a creek, we wore sturdy shoes and some of us wore gloves. It was also good idea to bring sunscreen, since some of the volunteers had pale skin and it was a sunny day when we headed out.
After we met with our volunteer group we drove to the area that we were planting
at. Lucky for us, Earth Day was warm and beautiful, and the air was buzzing
with new leaves and flower petals as we planted our trees. The trees we planted
were very interesting, since they were all just sticks that had been cut from
larger trees! Because they contained buds and could develop new roots, we just
had to make a hole in the ground for them using a large rod, tap them into the
ground, and make sure they were close to the water. Eventually, those sticks
will become dogwoods and willows, providing shade for the spawning ground. Some
of us removed invasive weeds from the bases of reintroduced native plants to
give the native ones a head start on survival. We saw proof of positive change
in the stream as we were planting—tiny little fish, either baby salmon,
trout, or steelhead, were schooling around. John Geidl told us that this year,
there had been signs that salmon and steelhead were indeed returning to spawn,
and we saw new little lives coming back to the creek. Perhaps when they return
as full-grown fish, spawning in their birth grounds, there will be cool, gentle,
shady, rejuvenated landscape awaiting their arrival.