Debbie Nelson
Environmental Studies Internship
Final Report

Working to Improve the Mill Creek channel for fish passage and kayaking

Introduction:

Mill Creek runs through the town of Walla Walla in a concrete channel constructed primarily for flood control. Mill Creek is a water resource development project constructed and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Completed in 1942 after a history of damaging floods in the Walla Walla Valley, the area is currently managed for flood control, recreation, and natural resource stewardship. However, fish passage has been an issue since the stream became channelized, especially during flows under 40 cfs, and desperately needs improvement. During high flows, from 200 cfs to 1,400 cfs, Mill creek provides great kayaking and attracts boater from around the Valley.

Fish use this channel as a passage back up stream every year but the design of this channel leaves little option for these travelers. To temporarily solve this problem, sandbags and boulders are placed across the stream to create more direct channels of water. Why not make this permanent? It obviously is necessary! My suggestion is to notch the weirs in order to push the water through a smaller area, creating more flow and higher levels. Creating a permanent whitewater park with controlled high flows would both benefit both migrating salmon and tout and the local recreation community.

If the Corp of Engineers looks at making improvements on the channel, I want to pursue this idea of creating a whitewater park at the same time, since it is merely an extension of the improvement project.

Assumptions:

Although series of biological and environmental tests have not been done directly relating fish and kayaking, I am working under the assumption that what is good for kayaking is also good for fish. A healthy stream for fish passage requires a multitude of water features. A playable river for kayakers requires the exact same thing!

Definitions:

These are all features that are important for a healthy stream and desirable for the avid boater. Therefore, they are imperative in understanding the ways of the river and the necessary components that need to be looked at in restoring Mill Creek.

Eddies are an island of comparatively quiet water. In slow-moving streams eddies are barely-noticeable slicks. In whitewater rivers, on the other hand, they're often more or less turbulent pools with pronounced upstream flow, guarded by a boundary of conflicting currents and marked by a noticeable "step." For fish they provide areas of spawning as well as places to hide from predators. Kayakers look for them as a safe harbor. It's a good place to bail, to catch your breath, and to scout the next drop ahead. They are also good places to hone your whitewater skills, and playing the river often means executing a series of eddy-turns, one after another. Catch an eddy on one side, peel out on the other, then head downriver to the next! There's no better way to learn to read the music of a river.

The reaction wave is created by the current running over a large rock, creating a hole and wave after. This phenomenon is also great for fish habitat and spawning because the currents run slower under the rock and provide protection from predators. This is what creates rapids in a river, and a more fun and diverse river run.

A souse hole is created when the current runs over a large rock and recirculates under the surface. These holes create reaction waves, or “keepers” that are waves that actually break upstream. While they are not a game for novice kayakers, these are great play places.

Goals and Objectives:

My ultimate goal was to create a whitewater park in Mill Creek from Rooks Park to Walla Walla Community College. To reach this goal, focusing on environmental aspects of the project, I would like to bring a variety of non profit and government agencies together to improve the stream channel primarily for fish passage by getting the Corps to notch the weirs. Then I would like to work on establishing a plan for a whitewater recreational park.

In order to do this I would become the mediator. I set up meetings, planted ideas, and got people excited about the possibility of a new Walla Walla attraction.
I would like to learn more about different agencies and how they work, make connections, and create a network of similar minded individuals. I have noticed that there are a many different agencies working on the same projects but not working with each other! The Corps of Engineers gets state and federal money to maintain the channel but is slow in the proceeding with the needed reconstruction of it. Other groups, like the Mill Creek Working Group, the Backyard Stream Team, the Tri-State Steelheaders and other Native American groups are all working to restore and repair all of the water ways in Walla Walla but they don’t have the state and federal supply of money. I would like to change that.

By the second part of the semester I realized that this is a lot of work with very little direction and support. I would like to refocus and work more on the community involvement and relationship with Mill Creek and surrounding streams. The knowledge of what a healthy stream should be like is miniscule and I would like to educate people about healthy streams and create a local support to get money for the city and the Corps of Engineers to make improvements on Mill Creek. If the locals have pride in their water, then there will be progress! I think that this is important and is worth my time because in the time I spent networking for the first half of the semester I noticed that many people didn’t know what was going on with the stream in their own backyard, or they just didn’t care. There is no way that the expenses and work of a whitewater park would ever be accepted by the local community if there is little understanding in the state of the river right now. At first I thought I could use the fish argument as support for my desire to build a whitewater park, but now I realize that many people don’t even understand the fish argument. Therefore we must start from the beginning. I am realizing that this is where many of the nonprofit groups I mentioned above are in their work with the local community, especially the Walla Walla Backyard Stream Team. So that is where I go from now.

Experiences and Reflections:

In the first half of the semester I had already learned a lot during internship and I was forced and encouraged to shift my focus and manipulate my objectives. First of all, contacting people is extremely difficult! I have tons of phone numbers butat times I have been left with nobody to work with. People that work for non profit agencies are extremely busy with their own goals and objectives for their projects that they set long before I ever even entered the picture. I am left frustrated because people have not gotten back to me. I have attempted to reach members from the Mill Creek Working Group, Tri-state Steelheaders, Backyard Stream Team, the city council, the parks department, the Corps of Engineers, and the Walla Walla Alliance. I really never heard back from many of these people, however it was awesome that a few of them have given up a little bit of their time to work with me.

I had the opportunity to meet with Barbara Clark who works on the City Council, as an attempt to plant ideas and gain support with and from her. I showed her a movie made in the 1970’s that showed the economic and recreational benefits of building a whitewater park in YOUR town! She seemed only slightly amused. Not having much experience with kayaking, or water, she didn’t really understand the entire concept I was going for. The problem is that she didn’t really take the time to understand the concept. All she knew was that there is no water in Mill Creek right now, so boating probably wouldn’t work. But ask yourself, why is Walla Walla so afraid of flooding? Why is there a flood control channel running through the town? We get floods! And even when there are low flows, we should stop putting all of the water into the reservoir for fishing and put it back into the river for the fish! It seems like a strange concept to just be relocating water at this point. People can fish in the river too. Basically, I felt like I was wasting her time and while I appreciated the opportunity to meet with her, I didn’t think it opened any doors into the city council or any other networking opportunities. While I will take any open minded and willing listener I can, I wish I could have the opportunity to talk with more appropriate people who have experience in the workings of the Mill Creek channel, who love boating, and who know that these two entities could be tied together in a fashionable way. I am fighting with having to convince people of the feasibility of a project that I have sought more information and more advice from the community. I am not even sure if this is going to work. And I am surely not the most knowledgeable person in Walla Walla. My new task is to find them!

I also met with Carl Christensen from the Corps of Engineers towards the beginning of the internship. He was extremely interested in my ideas. So far that is as far as it has gotten though, an exchange of ideas. He works for the biology department and has been working with some other people (who I did not meet with) to create a proposal for the National Marine Fisheries in order to get federal money to do construction on the channel. The Corps of Engineers has been working for a while to get enough money for a project to notch the weirs and make adjustments on the gabions for safe fish passage but their initial sponsor, who was providing 25% of the funding, decided to bail out on the project. This seems to be a running theme in the nonprofit world…low commitment, especially when large amounts of money are involved!
With federal support the Corps would be able to do restoration on all of Mill Creek (the dam to Russell Creek is their jurisdiction). This is a high priority in the Walla Walla Valley as the Mill Creek Working has also emphasized. The local streams, and especially the channel, have not been supporting fish passage for a while, and with endangered species in the area, this is an important task at hand. Restoration must occur in order for there to be any long lasting improvements. The Walla Walla Alliance has also been a large part in finding the financial support for this project. These groups working together shows that there is a little bit of collaboration but when I asked Carl if he knew much about what these other groups were doing he wasn’t sure, even though they are all working on the same project.

The reason that I decided to meet with the Corps of Engineers is because, not only do they have all of the power to make changes to the channel, but they are also extremely interested in recreation. Carl saw the possibility of getting more funding for the improvement of Mill Creek with the added recreational spin.
All of this sounded good! He was supportive of the idea and seemed to think it may work. But as we started talking logistics I became confused and he became less convinced. Again the water flows issue came up. He just didn’t think there was enough water to make it worth while. When the release channel was brought up as the possibility for storing water the idea was completely shut down. He was absolutely positive that the release channel didn’t go back into Mill Creek. But when I went back to Bob Carson, my reliable and handy information center, he told me that there indeed was a release channel that went back to Mill Creek.

This is a great example of one of the couple of times I had to stop in the middle of my tracks. I didn’t know what to do at this point because my only support system suddenly told me that the idea was impossible. I started believing him. I was not sure if it was going to work at all. Where is the water going to come from? Because in all honesty, there isn’t much of it, at least not right now. I had to take a step back and reconsider my goals and objectives a couple times this semester. They seemed too big, too wishful thinking, too impossible. But I just reworked them and decided what my priorites would be. I was going to have to do a lot of it on my own, with direction from a few different people, like Judith Johnson from the Backyard Stream Team, Bob Carson, and Carl Christensen from the Corps.

With skepticism still high in the minds of those I hope to gain support from, I was left to do some more extensive research and gain more information on the possibilities and feasibilities of getting this done. There are many other towns working on similar proposals and hundreds more that already have whitewater parks. Not only are there immediate recreational and habitat benefits for runners of the river, but there are also economic benefits to the city! I was going to need the specifics in order to convince anyone of the project. But as I researched, I realized that there are many people working on similar projects in other cities. This is a huge project. There are committees and groups that earn money, hold public meetings, and get the whole community fired up. I can’t do this by myself…but there aren’t many people that have the time to help me, or at least I have been unable to convince them that it may be worth their precious time.

I have been slightly moderately happy with the progress of the internship so far this semester. I have established some contacts and learned a great deal about the system of environmental agencies as well as the environment and its state around me, that is Mill Creek.

The Walla Walla Backyard Stream Team is an organization that I would have liked to been able to work with more. In order to even get people thinking about the necessity of restoring Mill Creek, we must get people to understand what it means to restore as well as why it is so important. The Walla Walla Backyard Stream Team does this in many ways: by going door to door and educating people on the health of the stream running through their own backyard, by surveying residents to see what their housing disposal practices are like in order to prevent toxics from entering the streams, and restoring the creeks in local parks like Fort Walla Walla in order to set up an example of the great beauty and success of a healthy, restored stream. It is just that easy. If people are able to start taking pride in the natural beauties of Walla Walla, then maybe they will start being motivated to do something positive with the concrete channel running through the town. At this point I am not even asking for a water park. I think it is way more important to educate people and get local support and funding for local projects. Not only is it important for the fish, but it is also important for the community to be able to make its own decisions outside of federal control. If Walla Walla can look at Mill Creek and realize that it is not good for fish habitat and may, in fact, be threatening endangered species, it is a million times better than having the government come in and forcing people to pay to restore something that they don’t know about and therefore don’t care about.

I think that this whole project is a learning experience and while my ultimate goal is to get a whitewater park in Walla Walla I think my short term goal is to plant ideas of such a park while trying to convince people of the necessity of improving the channel for fish. The people I have worked with a very receptive to new ideas but it is hard to convince them to actually consider them. I have realized that that is where I fit into this picture. I have been placed in a position that I am not sure is doable. Being the mediator between these varying agencies, while trying to convince them all that it is a good idea, while gaining little support and even less information to add to my argument seems like an impossible task. My impression and expectations of meeting with different agencies was to plant the idea of a whitewater park, encourage the need for alterations to the channel at the least, and gain information on the steps being taken towards the latter goal. But Carl Christenson, who I thought would provide me with the most information on the progress of the Corps of Engineers to repairing the channel merely confused me. I felt like I knew more about the stream than he did, and it was his job to know the stream. Barbara Clark gave me little support and even less possibility for networking, and nobody else even got back to me. I am not sure if this was just because of scheduling issues (just missing each other all the time; I did have extremely odd hours that I was able to call people), if people were just to busy with other projects, or if people just weren’t interested. I know that this idea has been thrown out into the minds of the locals a couple of times, and each time it seems to be a little less receptive. I think the general consensus is that this may just be a pipe dream that is never going to happen, especially with the turn over rate of the excited students that would utilize and fight for this project. They are here and then they are gone. I am here now, but I will be gone, and all of this work may be lost. It is hard to start over, but it may be even harder to pick up where this project has been left, in the minds of many people, but going nowhere fast.

Value to Community:

I think this project is important to the city of Walla Walla for many reasons. In the community of non profit and governmental agencies, it has and will bring them closer together to collaborate on similar projects. To the general community I think it brings opportunity for action, to protect fish habitat and improve a river that may now just be looked at as a concrete channel. It would also provide a great opportunity to recreate and bring others here to play as well. It would not only boost the economy but it would boost morality, as Thoreau would say, because the people of Walla Walla would have a river to show off. But while a whitewater park is a great idea, I am not sure Walla Walla is ready for such a large project. Mill Creek is an important issue to work on, though, and I would not give up on working to get the support and money to make alterations on the stream to sustain fish passage. Notching the weirs, increasing flows (by decreasing flows to Bennington Lake), and doing general riparian work would all be beneficial. There are lots of groups, including the ones I mentioned above, that are interested in this project and I think collaboration is extremely important. Therefore I would focus more on encouraging groups to work together for the same goal and really build a powerful, local infrastructure of activism. These nonprofit and governmental groups could really use a mediator, but I am not sure that is the job for a college intern!


Key Contacts:
Bob Carson
carsonrj@whitman.edu

Carl Christensen
Corp of Engineers
527-7260