A STREAM-DITCH RUNS THROUGH IT
Eugene's Amazon Creek flows on,for better or worse.
By Kera Abraham

A capricious creek runs through this town. In the summer it moves timidly, shrinking beneath blooms of algae that spread across its surface. In the winter it's bolder, surging against concrete walls that keep it from flooding the streets of Eugene.

Still, it's easy to think of Amazon Creek as a ditch. A far cry from the historic stream that wove curly braids of water across the land, today's creek is symmetrical and confined. More than 21 square miles of the city drain into it. As it flows northwest across the Willamette Valley, it carries insects, sediment, fish, oil, ducks, tires and pesticides with it.

The city of Eugene treats Amazon Creek like a paradox. From an engineering perspective, the waterway is for flood control. From a natural resources perspective, it has habitat and aesthetic value. Whether it's seen as a dirty ditch or as a beneficial local stream, Amazon Creek's evolving form signals changes of season and social values in the Willamette Valley.

Andy Gilmore took his first critical look at Amazon Creek on the first Earth Day in 1970 when he was a senior at Churchill High School. Back then, the creek was more overgrown, and roads like City View dead-ended rather than bridging over the creek to West 11th. Gilmore remembers that businesses dumped their waste on one side of the creek and households dumped their waste on the other.

"You'd find sofas, and washing machines, and just about everything," says Gilmore. "There were certain sections where, against a willow tree, you might find 10 tires. It was just unbelievable, the stuff."

Although he was born and raised in Eugene, Gilmore doesn't recall exploring the creek with his friends as a child. "I didn't really come down here and play that often," he said. "It was so dirty that we would dare each other to go into it."

A lot has changed since the 1970s, both for Gilmore and for the creek. Gilmore, now fifty-two years old, is willing to spend more time by the waterway. And the creek, though still polluted, is cleaner now than it was 30 years ago.

 

A Meandering History

Amazon Creek originates in the foothills of Spencer Butte and flows south and west. At Meadowlark Prairie, the creek splits into two waterways. The original channel flows to the Long Tom River, and the wider diversion channel flows to Fern Ridge Reservoir. Historically, the creek meandered crookedly through the west Eugene wetlands, but in the 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers realigned it into a straight, trapezoid-shaped channel to control flooding.

After the city of Eugene took over the responsibility for the creek's maintenance in the 1960s, officials tried a hands-off approach. The channel grew thick with vegetation. In 1981, the Upper Amazon flooded out onto the streets.

"It fully charged the wastewater system, and then it started backing into people's homes," says Trevor Taylor, natural resources operations coordinator for the city of Eugene's Parks and Open Space Division. "Toilets were backing up in all of the neighborhoods. Showers. People had sewage flowing through their homes."

In response to the crisis, the city dredged out the vegetation clogging the creek. "We removed it all," says Taylor. "It was back to bare soil."

But in the '90s, community members started pressuring city officials to go easier on the creek. The city decided to strike a compromise between flood control and natural resource value by allowing vegetation to grow on the creek's banks while keeping the channel clear. City officials developed what Taylor calls "the green pipe method," in which people walk down the channel with loppers and saws, pruning back vegetation by hand. Taylor hopes that the remaining vegetation will help to stabilize the banks and provide a long corridor of vegetation for wildlife to migrate up and down the creek.

What's good for wildlife is not necessarily good for flood control, and vice versa. Amazon Creek is a constructed stormwater channel, but the city of Eugene — unlike most municipalities — is attempting to restore its additional value as a natural feature. The city's three primary goals for maintaining the creek are flood control, water quality, and natural resource value. "Right off the bat, you can see that there's a bit of a conflict between those," says Taylor.

"People have streams and they have ditches," says Taylor with a laugh. "But we have a stream-ditch."

 

A Throw-Away Creek?

Public perception of the creek as a ditch worries Cindy Thieman, projects and monitoring coordinator for the Long Tom Watershed Council.

"One of the problems with Amazon Creek is that it's not at this point a very aesthetically pleasing creek for most of its length," says Thieman. "I think people don't have the urge to protect it because it's something that they've just kind of thrown away in their minds as a resource."

Nevertheless, some residents care enough about local waterways to participate in the Watershed Council, a voluntary grassroots group that brings together people with diverse perspectives on watershed-related issues. The organization carries out restoration projects throughout the watershed, including on Amazon Creek. More than 100 active council members include farmers, government officials, representatives from the forest products industry and concerned citizens.

Thieman says that the watershed council has given people a platform for non-confrontational dialogue. "There have been a fair number of acquaintenceships, if not friendships, struck between people who wouldn't otherwise talk to each other," she says.

While she praises the city's approach to creek maintenance, Thieman is troubled by the amount of pollution in the Amazon Creek. Most of it, she emphasizes, comes not from industry, but from non-point source pollution — all of the contaminants running off the streets of Eugene. And the responsibility for it falls on the shoulders of every resident.

 

Pavement's Price

In a natural system, rainwater filters through layers of soil before reaching a body of water. But when the ground is paved, water rushes straight to the nearest storm drain, which carries it untreated to local waterways. For west and south Eugene residents, that means Amazon Creek.

"You can think of a watershed as sort of like a sponge," explains Thieman. "If you shellac all over the sponge, it doesn't have the holding capacity it did."

Andy Gilmore

And Eugene has been shellacked. Every paved street, driveway, and parking lot in town is an impervious, or impenetrable, surface. So when it rains — and Eugene gets an average of 54 inches of rain a year — the water picks up a stew of pollutants. These include fertilizers and pesticides from people's yards, moss retardant used on roofs, oils from cars, sediments and soaps hosed off driveways, and domestic animal wastes.

"It's really death by a thousand cuts," says Taylor. "And each individual homeowner, and each person, has a role to play there."

What frustrates Thieman and Taylor about impervious surfaces is that without a concerted effort on the part of the citizens, there's not much that they can do to decrease the flow of pollution to the creek.

Not that the city hasn't tried. Eugene's Stormwater Management Program was launched in 1993 after the completion of an ambitious management plan to protect residents from floods, improve water quality, and protect natural resource values. The program is financed by monthly stormwater user fees, which are based on the quantity of impervious surfaces at all households and businesses in Eugene.

Still, Thieman is not convinced that the creek is getting healthier. The amount of paved surfaces is increasing, and residents are still contaminating them.

"If everybody's adding pollutants from their own property, and it ends up in the creek," she says, "there's nothing you can do to the creek itself to be able to clean all that water."

 

Industrial Pollution

Both city officials and representatives of the Watershed Council say that residential industrial stormwater discharge is a minimal threat to the health of the creek because, unlike residential runoff, it is regulated by federal law.

Certain industries, such as textile mills, printers, and makers of wood and metal products, have been identified by the EPA as having the potential to contaminate stormwater runoff. If stormwater drains from the property of such an industry into a public waterway via a point source, like a pipe or a catch basin, the industry is required to obtain a 1200-z National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the state of Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The 1200-z permit requires its holder to create a stormwater pollution control plan by identifying activities that could impact stormwater runoff and developing a strategy to eliminate or minimize the exposure of pollutants to stormwater.

Twice a year, industries with 1200-z permits are required to sample and analyze stormwater runoff for contaminants listed in their permits as "benchmarks." If contaminants exceed suggested "benchmark" levels, industries must review their stormwater pollution control plans and identify additional ways to reduce pollutant levels.

"Industries are doing a pretty good job. They can always do better," says Gary Cloyes, industrial source control technician for the city of Eugene's Wastewater Division of Public Works. "The regulations are going to get stricter all the time in the city."

But industries whose stormwater runoff violates water quality standards have plenty of chances to reform. If an industry violates a condition of its permit for the first time, the city sends a "request for corrective action" letter. If a second violation occurs, the city sends the industry another letter and refers the violation to the DEQ, which then issues a notice of noncompliance. The first notice is a warning, says Cloyes, and "more could result in penalties."

Eugene's most notorious case of stormwater contamination involves the J. H. Baxter wood treatment plant on North Baxter Road. In February1999, the company's monitoring report showed that stormwater discharge concentrations of four pollutants exceeded the permitted limits. Arsenic and suspended sediments were sampled at twice the permitted concentrations, zinc was sampled at 14 times the permitted concentration, and copper was sampled at 49 times the permitted concentration.

"It is unacceptable to have 1.2 pounds per day of copper and 3.3 pounds per day of zinc released into the environment from a facility that is under an NPDES permit which is supposed to be limiting and controlling these parameters," wrote Peter Ruffier, the wastewater director of the city of Eugene, in an internal memo.

Under pressure from the city and its residents, the company installed more monitoring wells around the plant and improved its stormwater collection and treatment system. The monitoring report for October 2003 showed the contaminants in Baxter's stormwater to be within the permitted limits.

 

On the DEQ's List

Meanwhile, the concentration of arsenic in Amazon Creek has caught the DEQ's attention.

Oregon's DEQ maintains a list of the state's stream segments that fail to meet water quality standards. Called the 303(d) List because it is required by section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act, the list is updated every two years.

Amazon Creek is on the 2002 303(d) List for arsenic, lead, and E. coli levels exceeding the permitted standards. The Amazon Diversion Channel, which splits off from Amazon Creek just south of Royal Avenue and flows to Fern Ridge Reservoir, was first listed in 1998 for inflated levels of dissolved oxygen and fecal coliform, which indicates contamination by sewage or animal waste.

According to the DEQ, these pollutants degrade the creek's ability to support aquatic life, render fish and water inconsumable, and make recreation in the creek a potential risk to human health.

Amazon Creek's toxic report card makes it easy to dismiss the creek as a polluted ditch, good only for preventing floods. But some people see it as an opportunity for local action.

 

Restoration Efforts

Gilmore stands by the bank of Amazon Creek in huge plastic sunglasses and a puffy blue jacket. His short red hair pokes out beneath a fleece cap with earflaps, and on his feet are pink tie-dyed socks and worn tennis shoes. An active member of the Long Tom Watershed Council, Gilmore recently helped with the restoration of a section of Amazon Creek in west Eugene.

Using Parks and Open Space funds, the city created four braided channels in the floodplain of Amazon Creek between Acorn Park and Oak Patch roads. To control erosion, they stretched jute and coconut fiber matting over the soil. Gilmore proudly points out the native species that he and other watershed volunteers planted: Douglas spiraea, dogwood, willow, and Pacific ninebark.

Gilmore says that he used to carry a lot of anger about environmental destruction. Even now, he gets worked up talking about thoughtless polluters. "One of the things that really bothers me is the way that people just don't clean up after their dogs. Or, the other thing that I really can't stand are these leaf blowers," he says. "You just want to put sugar in their …" He stops himself.

"But I would never act on it," he adds quickly. "It sounds good to be radical. You know?" He chuckles and lifts his ear flaps, tying them on top of his hat.

After years of mounting anger, Gilmore felt burnt out. "I just wore myself out yelling and screaming at issues and realizing that you need to act instead of just talk all the time," he says. But the media hype surrounding environmental issues didn't help. "When an article appears in The Register-Guard, it tends to be either really pro-development, or really anti-development," he says. "It just starts off with this really big headline."

The Watershed Council offered Gilmore a constructive outlet for his energy, allowing him to listen to other perspectives and get involved in creek restoration projects. While his involvement with the council pushed Gilmore to compromise his radical ideals, it also gave him a tangible way to "think globally and act locally."

It seems that Amazon Creek itself is a lesson in compromise, changing us even as we change it. We've turned it from a meandering wetland creek into a polluted "stream-ditch" flanked by blackberry bushes and willow trees. In return, the creek offers us floods, ducks, and floating tires. We walk, run and bike beside it; we absorb its chemicals when we swim at Fern Ridge. It drains our streets, carries our pollution, and shelters our wildlife. And all the while, Amazon Creek evolves, inspiring local government workers, business people, farmers, and environmental activists to hammer out ever-evolving schemes to contain it.

To view a conceptual map of Amazon Creek and other waterways in Eugene, check out www.ci.eugene.or.us/wewetlandsimages/Wetland-map-Dec02.pdf The city's comprehensive stormwater management plan is available online at www.ci.eugene.or.us/PW/storm/CSWMP.pdf

 

A TOXIC CHANNEL

A stream adjacent to Amazon Creek runs through the industrial flats of west Eugene from Seneca Avenue to Meadowlark Prairie, draining the lots of 166 businesses. It's called the A-3 Channel, and it's one of the most toxic waterways in the state of Oregon.

In 1997, the DEQ launched a project to improve water quality in the channel by encouraging local businesses to keep pollutants from reaching the stream. Although 80 percent of the companies complied, a biological survey showed that the A-3 Channel was still highly degraded and had almost no habitat value.

The A-3 is listed on Oregon's 303(d) list of water quality limited streams for six parameters: dichloroethylenes, tetrachloroethylene, arsenic, lead, mercury, and E. coli. "That's from a legacy of industry along the A-3 Channel," says Cindy Thieman of the Long Tom Watershed Council, "before there were the types of regulations that there are today."

This is not good news. Dichloroethylenes affect the growth, tissue structure, and mortality of fish. Tetrachloroethylene, a known carcinogen, affects the behavior and mortality of fish, kills insects and worms, impacts the biochemistry of phytoplankton, and impairs the reproduction of zooplankton. Arsenic, a known carcinogen and developmental toxin for humans, can kill amphibians, fish and zooplankton. Lead, also a known carcinogen and a developmental toxin, has negative effects on worms, amphibians, fish, mollusks, insects, aquatic and terrestrial plants, phytoplankton and zooplankton. Mercury, a developmental toxin, is highly toxic to amphibians, crustaceans, fish, nematodes and zooplankton. And E. coli, a bacteria commonly found in the intestines of humans and animals, is identified as an emerging cause of food borne and waterborne illnesses.

One way to reduce the movement of pollutants is to encourage sedimentation. A weir structure controls the flow of water from the A-3 Channel, allowing for the deposition of sediments in the flooded Meadowlark Prairie. The A-3 flows into the original Amazon Creek channel several hundred yards south of this structure.

But the city does little else to deal with the pollution in the A-3 Channel. "The toxic issues along A-3 we're not currently addressing," says Trevor Taylor of the Parks and Open Space Division. "Most of the toxins are heavy metals, and a lot of the heavy metals bind with sediment. For us to remediate them, we'd have to dig them out and send them to a special toxic materials landfill." The city chooses not to do this, says Taylor, because disturbing the sediments would kick up the heavy metals and cause them to start flowing down the creek. "Our hope is to really not disturb them," he says. — Kera Abraham

For more information about the A-3 channel and other waterways on Oregon's 303(d) list, visit the DEQ's website: www.deq.state.or.us.To learn more about the hazards of specific chemicals, check out the Pesticide Action Network's chemical information database: www.pesticideinfo.org.

 

 

THE EMERALD CANAL

For decades now, a small group of Eugeneans has been advocating for an 11-block canal connecting the Shaw's Millrace near 10th and Ferry to what landscape architect professor Jerry Diethelm calls "that concrete eyesore masquerading as Amazon Creek" at 17th and Oak. Diethelm is a member, along with Charles O. Porter and Jerry Rust, of the executive board of the Emerald Waterways Citizens Committee, Inc.

The Emerald Canal is getting closer to reality. Both the Eugene Planning Commission and City Council have recently supported "daylighting" culverted water at the new federal building site, and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is seeking $20 million in federal funding specifically for the waterway in the Water Resources bill now before Congress.

What would such an canal be like? "Try to set aside the present urban drear and call up a vision of a rich, local blend of historic millrace and San Antonio Riverwalk," says Diethelm. "Imagine a 35- to 40-foot waterway with broad promenades on both sides meandering beneath native trees within an urban garden. Put yourself into one of the water taxis, canoes and paddle boats as they pass under mirrored bridges and past urban townhouses, restaurant terraces, shops, parks and just pleasant places to sit and marvel at the magic of light on water."

Diethelm's fanciful vision may be optimistic, but he says, "I think $20 million would buy the major elements necessary for a return to the river: a significant underpass under 6th and the railroad right-of-way, the basic water 'plumbing,' excavation and construction needed, some important public plazas, walkways, plantings and places, and some attractive waterworks along the way."

He says the larger and longer-range public works "adjustments" to the urban watershed will take more time and money. "I'm talking about filtering and cleaning the water before it goes into the Millrace, returning it to the time earlier in this century when it was not the area's storm sewer."

The canal link would allow fresh water to be brought from the Willamette into the Millrace at Eugene, transported via the Emerald Canal to the Amazon, and carried past the Fairgrounds to Fern Ridge Lake. It would then flow over the dam into the Long Tom River and rejoin the Willamette north of Monroe. "A relatively short in-town connection would create a very large waterway circuit that has contributions for the community everywhere along its course," says Dielhelm. — Ted Taylor

 


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