Crystal Springs Creek becomes an urban salmon sanctuary; city council proclaims Sunday 'Salmon in Our City Day'

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Salmon is served up straight from the fire at Westmoreland Park on Sunday.What happens when humans build and develop without much consideration for other species?

Well, sometimes it means using millions of dollars to go back and correct mistakes.

In Portland's case, it meant spending $16 million to backtrack and widen culverts — the circular or square piping that sometimes runs through streams —at Crystal Springs Creek so that salmon could adequately pass through them.

The nine manmade culverts that support roadways and pass through the sparkling, 2.5-mile long creek, which snakes through Southeast Portland's Westmoreland Park, until last year were too small, impacting salmon's ability to spawn and swim through them and ultimately migrate to the ocean.

"It's very important to have these systems. They don't have a lot of ripples or rapids that (salmon) have to fight, so it's easy for them to come in and grow until they get to the ocean," said Mary Ann Schmidt, co-chair of the Crystal Springs Partnership. "Coho, steel head … they spend a lot of time in fresh water. I think Crystal Springs fits that need."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - The Crystal Springs Creek is 2.5 miles long and runs through Southeast Portland's Westmoreland Park.Things are somewhat looking up for the endangered species around here though, and as much hope was apparent at the fourth annual Westmoreland Park Salmon Celebration, which merged with Portland Bureau of Transportation's Sunday Parkways cycling event.

Hundreds mingled under the sunny skies to celebrate all-things salmon, including eating salmon and sipping salmon soup and more. It also happened that it was the first "Salmon in Our City Day," designated by Commissioner Nick Fish, to mark the progress in restoring urban salmon habitat.

"It builds awareness about salmon, especially because there's a lot of new people in Portland. So for all those folks, and folks in the community who do restoration, it's to celebrate that even in an urban environment, we have salmon here," said Ronda Fast, environmental program coordinator at Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services. "Not very many large cities, or many cities in general can say that. That's something to celebrate."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - A camera is set up underwater so people can see activity in the creek.The Crystal Springs Creek flows starting from the Reed College Rhododendron Garden, where water bubbles up and flows down to Johnson Creek, to the Willamette River and eventually into the Pacific Ocean.

But why are the salmon important at all? Turns out, for a lot of different reasons. It's not going to be a food source for people from that creek, but it will be for other animals. Additionally, according to Karl Lee, co-chair of the Crystal Springs Partnership and retired hydrologist for the U.S. Geological survey, they're a "giant package of nutrients."

"When it comes up from the ocean, it's bringing nutrients from the ocean. It's bringing all that up into the creek, and goes up wherever it goes and spawns. And, it leaves the carcass there, so that's food for other creatures to eat," Lee said. "So it's not just about trying to provide fish or people to eat, or even live fish for other animals to eat, but it's a movement of nutrients."

There's a spiritual connection too, especially for indigenous cultures. There are more than 250 Native American tribes in the Portland metro area according to Judy BlueHorse Skelton, an instructor at Portland State University and member of the Native American Community Advisory Council that often works in conjunction with Portland Parks and Recreation.

"We do these celebrations, and have since time immemorial," Skelton said, explaining that immemorial means since the beginning of time. "So, this is Salmon Country, Salmon Nation. We are salmon people. Salmon is our relative, our brother."

She said that having these types of celebrations allows for the next generation to learn how to fish and prepare the sacred animal. Skelton and a few others on the committee performed a blessing ceremony at Westmoreland Park, although it was out of step from previous years.

Normally, tradition calls for bones of fish to be distributed back into the place it came. However, this year because of the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge, they weren't able to put the bones back into Crystal Springs Creek because they weren't the same waters from which the bones came from.

They were unable to get salmon from the Columbia River this year as they usually do, because the river was closed off for fishing. Instead, patrons were consuming salmon from the Nisqually River in Washington.

The possibility of not having the fish at their annual Salmon Celebration was a stark reminder to Lee how precious of a resource salmon are.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Onlookers marvel at the calm flowing Crystal Springs Creek at Westmoreland Park."People are used to having the resource. But there's sort of a cause and effect thing going on, whether it's natural causes, whether it's kids playing with fireworks, whether it's climate change, whether it's natural cycles," he said. "We come to depend on the resource, and it's not guaranteed. This is not a theme park, this is nature."

Groups involved in restoration of the creek are hoping that next month people might be able to actually observe salmon spawning — that is, the process that the salmon lay their eggs.

"We're crossing our fingers. You know, you'd be really lucky to see it, it's kind of a gift," Fast said. She explained that the male salmon encourages the female to build a nest. The female fish turns sideways and flaps her tail, and that process digs a small hole in the creek bed where she lays her eggs. Then the male comes along to fertilize the eggs, and then she'll cover them up.

"If you see it happening in the stream, I highly recommend it," Fast said. "It's beautiful."

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Lyndsey Hewitt
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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The story incorrectly reported that beavers ate salmon. In fact, beavers are herbivores, and only consume bark, forage fruits and other snacks grown from the ground. They do not eat fish.