Is Claggett Creek in trouble?

With the continued dry weather and back-to-back very dry years, you may be wondering “what keeps Claggett Creek flowing this time of year”? If you take a look at the creek now you will notice that there is presently very little flow. You will also notice extensive growth of stream side and bank vegetation and mats of floating aquatic vegetation covering most of the surface.

According to the Oregon Water Resources Department, the base flow of most of our urban area streams is maintained by ground water discharge. Water stored in the upper soil profile is replenished by annual rainfall plus some transfer of ground water from deep aquifers to the surface for domestic use and large and small scale irrigation. Ground water is released and drains into streams where the stream bed intersects the shallow water table. This typically occurs in gullies, at the base of bluffs, and where depressions occur that form wetlands. Claggett Creek encounters all of these geologic formations along its course.

The creek, which originates in Salem just east of Interstate 5, winds its way through north Salem and into and through Keizer to its terminus at Clear Lake. From there the water slowly makes its way to the Willamette River via a maze of sloughs, backwaters, and bayous. During summer weather, it may actually never reach the river. During the wet season, the creek, directly and indirectly, meets the river just upstream of the Wheatland Ferry landing. 

During the spring months of 2015, the United States Geological Survey, Water Quality Division, conducted comprehensive sampling and monitoring of urban streams and water ways at numerous sites throughout the Willamette Valley and the Puget Sound lowlands. 

 The purpose of the study was to determine the impact of urban areas and agriculture upon the water quality of these streams. Included in the study was Claggett Creek which was sampled numerous times at Lockhaven Drive and River Road. Stream water, bottom sediments, and vegetation were sampled and monitored for contaminants that are indicators of stream health. When the sampling data was analyzed, Claggett Creek was found to have scored poorly in comparison to most of the other streams included in the regional study. Here in general is some of what they found. 

• High levels of salts and plant nutrients were found which is indicative of fertilizer runoff from yards and farms that reaches the creek. The high levels of plant nutrients in the water has led to excessive growth of stream bank and in-stream plant growth. The thick grass and vegetation along the creek may look attractive but it eventually decomposes and the decomposition process consumes oxygen. Measurements confirmed low levels of available or dissolved oxygen in the water and sediments which, along with high water temperatures during the warm season, make it difficult for aquatic life to thrive in the creek. The high water temperatures are mostly caused by the lack of shade and low warm season flow along most of the steam course.  

• Several organic pesticides (insecticides and herbicides) including 2,4-D and glyphosate at levels or concentrations of concern were found in the creek. Other toxins found in the stream bed sediments include heavy metals such as elemental mercury and low level radioactive nuclides which are found naturally in the valley sediments but could also be from runoff from industrial sites and operations. Runoff from roads and highways is another possible source.  

Why should anyone care about the status of Claggett Creek since hardly anyone expects to see trout and salmon living in the creek? As a drainage, the creek receives what runs off of the land that comprises the Claggett Creek watershed. Thus it is a useful indicator of the health of the environment through which the stream flows. And what reaches the creek eventually makes it to the river. Where the flow slows and ponds, the water evaporates and also percolates downward to the water table with potentially negative impacts to the shallow aquifer.

Thanks to the work of the Clagget Creek Watershed Enhancement Council and the City of Keizer, water quality has improved in recent times. We can continue to improve the health of Claggett Creek by using less pesticide and fertilizer on our lawns, gardens, farms and roadsides. Our environmental agencies can further assist businesses and industries to minimize industrial runoff. More native stream side trees and shrubs can be planted to provide shade to lower water temperatures. Constructing artificial rapids or enhancing existing rapids where the gradient is sufficient can agitate the water which will increase dissolved oxygen levels.  

Working together, people in southeast Portland and Salem brought salmon and trout back to once neglected and polluted Johnson and Mill Creeks and to sections of Pringle Creek. With all of the limitations that exist, Claggett Creek will probably never be a fishing stream but we should work to ensure that it becomes and remains safe for kids and pets to play in and for wildlife to safely utilize. 

(Jim Parr lives in Keizer.)