Our region is defined by the big rivers that course through it. Most everyone knows the Sandy, the Clackamas, the Tualatin and the Willamette. These names might also identify a community, school or park—but we know them first and foremost as ‘our rivers.’
But when you mention Beaver Creek to a friend, you might get a head scratch response. “Which one do you mean?” or “Where is that exactly?”
This story is about the Sandy River tributary known as Beaver Creek. More specifically, it is the story about a group of people who gathered together to restore Beaver Creek.
This Beaver Creek originates within the farm fields and urban neighborhoods of east Multnomah County, but is also part of the larger Sandy River watershed. For many years conservationists and scientists viewed Beaver Creek as too urbanized or too overrun by agriculture for our scarce restoration dollars. Road culverts impeded salmon access, contributing to a fatalistic perception that Beaver Creek was of low conservation value. The Beaver Creek crossings under Troutdale Road and Stark Street had been retrofit in the past, but the fishways were subsequently damaged, limiting access to coldwater tributaries needed by salmon to spawn and rear.
Conservation work on Beaver Creek stretches back to the 1990s, at least. But the latest chapters started in 2012 when Multnomah County, Metro, SOLVE, East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Sandy River Watershed Council came together to form the Beaver Creek Conservation Partnership. Up to then, restoration work by SOLVE, Mount Hood Community College (MHCC) and the City of Troutdale had been of limited size and scope, with most restoration dollars flowing to other Sandy River tributaries deemed higher value. Metro and Troutdale had acquired parks and greenspaces, but there was no restoration plan for Beaver Creek.
A 2011 Beaver Creek fish distribution survey led by Roy Iwai, water resources specialist with Multnomah County, came as a surprise. In spite of the land use impacts, salmon access barriers, and degraded water quality, populations of coho salmon, steelhead, brook lamprey, and other native fish persisted in Beaver Creek. Through subsequent trapping and investigations by ODFW and the Portland Water Bureau, the partners learned that 4 to 9 percent of Sandy River coho passed through Beaver Creek each year, a sizable fraction since Beaver Creek represents only 1 percent of the salmon-accessible stream miles in the Sandy basin.
Independent of the fish data, there were signs that the community was ready to bring back Beaver Creek. East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (EMSWCD) canvassed Beaver Creek rural properties, and 30 percent of the landowners enrolled in their innovative Stream Care program to replant and re-vegetate degraded streambanks. Next, Troutdale gave EMSWCD a 10-year contract to sign up and steward riparian properties within the City. Meanwhile, Multnomah County Transportation Division evaluated fish passage at all County-owned and some private crossings within Beaver Creek, an effort that pinpointed the potential ecological gains from replacement of the fish-blocking culverts at Stark Street and Cochran Road.
As the learning progressed, new partners joined in or renewed their commitments. Todd Hanna, a MHCC instructor, taught his fisheries students how to conduct salmon spawning surveys on Beaver Creek, and the effort grew from a class exercise into a data set that ODFW now uses to inform fish population monitoring and management. Multnomah County secured funding from the Metro Nature In Neighborhoods capital grant program to replace fish-blocking culverts, completing Stark Street in 2017 with Cochran Road scheduled for 2019. Several cohorts of MHCC students inspired the restoration of South Beaver Creek Natural Area, which was mostly finished in 2014 with funds from the 2013 Metro parks and nature levy.
The Partnership benefited greatly from Metro conservation bond investments, like numerous other similar conservation efforts spread across the region ... one reason why the Metro 2019 Parks and Nature bond deserves your YES vote in November.
Like a watershed, the story of Beaver Creek continues to branch out into tributaries with separate threads weaving their way up the hill. In 2016, MHCC became the first Salmon-Safe certified community college in the nation, partnering with Sandy River Watershed Council (SRWC), the City of Gresham, EMSWCD, Depave, and others to implement a series of green infrastructure investments that will divert and infiltrate stormwater runoff. Efforts like the MHCC campus green retrofit gained inspiration and financial investment because of the return of salmon enabled by Multnomah County’s culvert replacement work. Over the long-term, these improvements are also expected to benefit Kelly Creek, an urbanized headwater tributary of Beaver Creek that flows through east Gresham.
Like Beaver Creek before it, the restoration of Kelly Creek was never up for discussion until now. Some still question what can be done with Kelly Creek and at what cost. A MHCC dam and pond on Kelly Creek impedes all fish access upstream and superheats the creek to lethal temperatures for coldwater-dependent fish like salmon. But the conversations enabled by the Beaver Creek Conservation Partnership have propelled this work forward. Other factors forcing these conversations are debilitating infrastructure failures like the Kane Drive culvert failure in December 2015, when 4+ inches of rainfall blew away four lanes of roadway in a few hours. SRWC Executive Director Steve Wise likened this event to Kelly Creek declaring, “I am! I live!”
The Beaver Creek Conservation Partnership is a collaboration that welcomes everyone. A grant from Spirit Mountain Community Foundation has enabled SRWC to create interpretive signage for the MHCC parking lot green retrofit in English, Spanish, Russian and Chinook. The City of Gresham, EMSWCD, SRWC, and Multnomah County made the Beaver Creek fact sheet available in three languages, which was mailed to every household in the watershed.
There are synergies among Beaver Creek conservation partners that can’t be easily quantified or categorized. Some claim agency-led initiatives (like the culvert replacements on Beaver Creek) lack community engagement and social benefits, but it is uncertain whether the subsequent community-led efforts like the MHCC campus green retrofit would have gained inspiration without the return of salmon enabled by Multnomah County’s work.
The Beaver Creek Conservation Partnership continues its humble work to pull back overwrought and failing human infrastructure to make more room for nature in east Gresham and Troutdale. The work isn’t based on the arrogant notion that Beaver Creek can be engineered or “fixed.” It is more akin to gardening or a good conversation with friends.
It is also important to acknowledge that the Partnership benefited greatly from Metro conservation bond investments, like numerous other similar conservation efforts spread across the region. The conservation progress and innovation demonstrated by the Beaver Creek Conservation Partnership is one reason why the Metro 2019 Parks and Nature bond deserves your YES vote in November.
There are many years worth of work left to do in Beaver Creek. Stay tuned for more, and jump into crafting the next chapter of the story by engaging with the Sandy River Watershed Council and following Beaver Creek on Instagram.