Mill Creek restoration project to offer new look, improved native fish habitat
By Amy Joi O'Donoghue | Deseret News
MILL CREEK CANYON — A 20-ton culvert swayed gently when it was hoisted high in the air by a monstrous crane, and as it was lowered into place, there was barely a noise as it touched ground.
As the work crew began to supervise the culvert's positioning behind four other similarly placed culverts, a heavy, hydraulically powered chain slid the structures together much like children's building blocks.
This swift but delicate ballet performed earlier this week by loud, heavy equipment is part of a carefully executed effort to restore the harmony of a natural ecosystem, to bring environmental symmetry to an ecosystem of imbalance.
Historically, Bonneville cutthroat trout thrived in Mill Creek and in key rivers and other waterways throughout Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. By the 1930s, they were fished to extinction at Utah Lake and now occupy only 30 percent of their native stream habitat, according to a report issued this week by Trout Unlimited.
That national organization is part of an effort being carried out by the U.S. Forest Service's Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to restore the Mill Creek watershed to more natural and historic conditions.
Bonneville cutthroat trout, Utah's state fish and identified as a "species of special concern" by Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming, was proposed for protections under the Endangered Species Act, a step that was averted in 2000 with the development of an ecosystem-wide conservation agreement among the four states and other partners.
The introduction of nonnative fish such as brown trout from Germany and rainbow trout from the West Coast depleted populations of the Bonneville cutthroat in places such as Mill Creek, and interbreeding with other species of trout has created an absence of genetically pure Bonneville cutthroat in the creek.
Further impediments to its survival came with the installation of a hydroelectric dam in 1910 and other infrastructure such as pipes. The Trout Unlimited report, released Tuesday, notes that the species is especially vulnerable to structures like these that naturally accompany increasing urbanization.
"One of the things we have argued for is that we need to do our restoration work at larger scale and on a watershed scale if we can," said Jack Williams, a senior scientist with Trout Unlimited out of Oregon.
"Reconnecting habitat is critical. One of the interesting things about this project is by fixing things like dams and pipes, you restore life history diversity — that is, the actual lifestyle of these fish," Williams said.
As part of this local project, President Obama's 2016 budget includes partial funding for the removal of the Mill Creek Dam, and the Forest Service was able to secure funding for other aspects of the project through partners such as the National Forest Foundation.
Paul Cowley, the project lead for the Forest Service, said there is still money out there that needs to be secured to finish the entire restoration of upper Mill Creek — about 9 miles — with several hundred thousand dollars that need to be scraped together.
"We are actively using the allocated funds we have for this, along with working with partners and other contributed funds," Cowley said.
Those partners are vast and include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Anglers Coalition, PacifiCorp and the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America, which has multiple camps up the canyon.
Aside from the restoration of the aquatic habitat, Cowley said the project will vastly improve flood control measures along the stream, educational signs will be installed for the public's benefit, and a boardwalk installed more than 20 years ago will be replaced.
Cowley has taken particular interest in the Mill Creek work because those improvements made in the 1990s were his first Utah Forest Service assignment when he moved to the state.
"This is where we are trying to head with projects like these that have these multiple benefits," he said. "We will have a really great experience for the public when we are through."
Earlier this week, a major component of the restoration project involved tearing up Mill Creek Canyon Road above the winter closure gate to pull out huge sections of pipe that had carried the creek under the roadway. In place of the pipeline — which did not allow for safe passage of fish — the 10 20-ton culverts were fastened together.
Dirt and rocks will fill the monstrous structures to the halfway mark, simulating a natural stream environment for the fish. Last year, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources stocked the creek above the construction area with 3,000 young cutthroats after the nonnative fish in that section were poisoned.
The project also involves the removal of old stone bridges that over the years have been hit by motorists and are crumbling.
Aside from more natural channeling of the creek, the improvements will increase public safety in the canyon, which is part of a national forest area that receives more visitors each year than Utah's five national parks combined.
"I think in the long run, this project will be a real benefit for the people in the Salt Lake Valley who use this canyon, and for the native fish," Cowley said.
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Salt Lake County has developed the "Stream Care Guide: A Handbook for Residents of Salt Lake County" to provide information to residents that will help them protect water quality, wildlife habitat and preserve property values.
“The overarching goal of the 'Stream Care Guide' is to improve the health of streams and water quality in Salt Lake County. It was created to empower all county residents in their role in keeping our water safe and available, which is especially relevant throughout this drought season,” said Lynn Berni, Salt Lake County watershed planner.
Many daily activities can affect water quality, both locally and far downstream. Erosion, residential pollution, storm water runoff, and invasive plants are some of the common problems affecting the Salt Lake County’s waterways.
Berni said residents who live along streams such as Mill Creek can play an even bigger role in protecting stream health. The county mailed more than 4,100 of the guides to those households in mid-May.
“We hope the guide will be a useful informational resource, as well as one that inspires residents to identify and implement stream care solutions in their own backyards,” Berni said. “We’ve had a very positive response to the guide so far, with many requests for additional copies.”
The guide is available online at www.slco.org/watershed. Printed books are free and available by contacting the Salt Lake County Watershed Planning and Restoration Program at 385-468-6643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.