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Johnson Creek work holds back floods, opens land for park

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Of the 60 homes bought and removed, Wes Wolfe was one of the last agreeing to sell, making way for the Johnson Creek floodplain restoration. His three houses were the only ones preserved and relocated.Ever since the 1920s, the major creek flowing through Portland’s east side was known mostly for flooding.

Johnson Creek spilled over its banks about once every other year, deluging nearby homes and businesses in the Lents neighborhood and rendering Southeast Foster Road impassable.

By year end, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services expects to wrap up a $20 million floodplain restoration that should ease flooding, restore wildlife habitat and boost Lents’ chances of luring jobs.

The bureau is restoring 70 acres to its natural role accommodating flood waters — after clearing 60 homes in the path of those waters.

Bureau Director Dean Marriott, who led a tour of the complex project last week, hopes to hand the site to the parks bureau around Earth Day 2013, delivering a new natural area to parks-deficient East Portland that’s more than twice the size of Laurelhurst Park.

Decades in the making, the East Lents Floodplain Restoration Project passed its first big test last January, when Johnson Creek crested at two feet above flood stage.

“We sat there waiting for Foster Road to flood,” recalls Lents Neighborhood Association Chairman Nick Christensen, “and it didn’t top the berms.”

Coho salmon have already been spotted returning to Johnson Creek, and Christensen expects to see eagle’s nests eventually.

The most flood-prone part of Foster Road, between Southeast 106th Avenue and 110th Drive is dominated by automotive businesses with simple aluminum buildings and large parking lots, plus a bar advertising women dancers.

Marriott predicts that stretch of Foster will look very different in coming years.

Christensen hopes the floodplain restoration will boost the appeal of commercial properties in the area to attract sorely needed jobs.

“It helps remove some of the questions about whether you’re going to be a foot under water or your road’s going to be closed three days a year because of flooding of Foster,” Christensen says.

To be sure, flooding will continue on Johnson Creek and the 475-acre floodplain surrounding the city restoration project.

“I think probably Johnson Creek has always flooded because that’s what creeks do,” says Matt Clark, executive director of the Johnson Creek Watershed Council. “Flooding became a problem for us as we developed, and it impacted us.”

But now the water has more room to spread, minimizing the times when floods impact residents, businesses and commuters on Foster.

Past failures

Starting in the 1930s, an alphabet soup of local, regional and federal agencies tried to stem Johnson Creek flooding, to no avail.

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration lined 15 miles of Johnson Creek’s bank with rocks to channel the river.

“The theme in those days was getting the water away as quickly as possible,” Marriott says.

But the engineers got it wrong. New homes and commercial developments kept springing up, replacing soil, which soaked up rainfall, with concrete. Johnson Creek continued to top its newly confined channel. And the project ruined habitat for fish.

“The water would jump out of the creek and find the low point,” says Maggie Skenderian, Johnson Creek watershed manager for the Bureau of Environmental Services. Sometimes that meant homes four or five blocks away.

In 1964, about 1,200 structures were flooded.

Each time it flooded, the city helped folks get disaster relief and spent time and money clearing Foster, three local bridges over the creek and neighborhood roads.

“It was an ongoing mess,” Marriott says. “There was no end in sight.”

Almost as messy were a string of failed government and community efforts to resolve the problem, marked by disputes among residents.

Then in the early-1990s, the city changed its approach, resolving to work with, not against, Mother Nature.

“The creek clearly wants to flood here; it always has historically,” Marriott says. So the city resolved to restore some of the natural floodplain that had been filled with development since the turn of the last century.

Starting about 15 years ago, the city started offering to buy up homes in the natural path of the floodwaters. It was billed as a “willing seller” program, meaning the city wouldn’t resort to forced removal and condemnation of homes.

By July 2010, the city acquired homes from 60 households, plus other vacant lots, Skenderian says. “A lot of them were in pretty sad shape,” she says.

Many were riddled with mold and other problems, and all but a few were dismantled. The city helped relocate three of the homes a few blocks south of Foster, on a hill overlooking the floodplain. To induce some of the last holdouts to sell, the city had to pay some stiff prices, and built a new access road, Cooper Street, to connect to the hilly area.

Final holdouts

Wes Wolfe, who owns the three relocated homes, doesn’t like being called a holdout. He and his wife loved the rural feel and cheap housing prices in the Johnson Creek area.

When he refused to sell, the city threatened to condemn his property, Wolfe says. “I had to spend thousands of dollars to defend myself.”

He credits the intervention by Mayor Sam Adams, which helped get him better terms.

Wolfe was skeptical about the city’s plan to restore the floodplain, but it turned out to be an “amazing project,” he says. “It’s cutting-edge bioengineering.”

Once all the homes were removed, the city took out chunks of 106th and 108th avenues, along with three bridges over the creek. Some 50,000 cubic yards of fill, enough for 1,500 dump truck loads, were removed to add more capacity for water.

Now there’s a new asphalt walking path, providing public access to the wetlands and creekside. The city planted 90,000 trees and shrubs at the site, and added a curb and sidewalk on the south side of Foster, along with storm drainage devices.

The natural area will give people a new reason to come visit East Portland, Christensen says. It will add to the growing corridor of protected natural areas along Foster Road, he says, which include Beggars Tick Marsh, Leach Botanical Garden and Brookside Wildlife Area.

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