Restoring Hamilton Creek: The Soltaus’ Story
As early spring blooms pop open and a great blue heron takes off across the water, Glen Soltau walks the trails on his property along Hamilton Creek outside of Lebanon, Ore. When Glen and his wife, Leslie, bought the property in 1992, Hamilton Creek was overrun with invasive blackberries, some growing as tall as 10-12 feet high, and cows walked in the streambed disrupting fish habitat and eroding the banks.
Now rows of native willow, dogwood and elderberry have replaced the blackberries. Indian plum provides an early season nectar source for hummingbirds. Beavers build seasonal dams that increase the area for Glen and Leslie to paddle their kayaks. And flocks of widgeon and a growing number of wood ducks and geese come here to nest.
“Two weeks after we cleaned out the blackberries, several elk came through,” reported Glen. “I like to see the elk coming through.”
Six years ago, the Soltaus and their neighbors attended a public meeting hosted by the South Santiam Watershed Council. They were apprehensive, wondering what this group of biologists and ecologists was going to tell them what they could and could not do on their property. But watershed councils are non-regulatory, which means they approach landowners as friends, never foes. Over time, the Soltaus saw the opportunities provided by restoring healthy streams and natural stream banks as a benefit rather than a constraint on their land use.
Two years after the first meeting, they were embarking on a project to transform a third of a mile along Hamilton Creek – a stream that feeds into the South Santiam River just above the drinking water intake for the towns of Lebanon and Albany, and is listed as impaired by Oregon DEQ and identified as critical habitat for winter steelhead and spring chinook.
Watershed councils’ unique role protecting of our watersheds and drinking water sources
Watershed councils are locally organized groups that work with landowners and land managers of all types of properties – from residential homes to 100-acre farms – to restore the natural stream systems that keep our water clean for native fish and wildlife, summer swimmers, farmers and business owners, and all Oregonians who expect safe drinking water to run from their tap.
However, stream restoration is not all just goodwill. Every major river in Oregon is out of compliance with water quality standards that protect human health and aquatic life, and the EPA requires that states make progress toward meeting those standards. In Oregon, one of the ways the state is tackling these issues is by investing in voluntary, incentive-based programs to encourage landowners to reduce harmful practices along streambanks and restore vegetation that helps shade, filter out pollutants, and prevent erosion into the river. But these programs can be confusing to navigate or even find out about.
That’s where watershed councils come in.
Watershed councils can do the dirty, complicated work that often deters landowners from undertaking projects like Glen’s. They can secure grants and cost share funds to offset costs to property owners, bring expertise and professional work crews to the table to make sure projects are successful and well managed, and help landowners navigate federal and state processes for restoration. By working with multiple property owners along one stream, they also build connectivity between projects and multiply the benefits for everyone.
Reaping the benefits
Together, the Soltaus and the South Santiam Watershed Council have added more than 3,000 feet of fencing to protect streamside riparian areas from grazing cattle and planted more than 25,000 native trees and shrubs. These changes are helping increase the capacity of the stream to support more fish and different species. Scientists say that the presence of Pacific lamprey in Hamilton Creek is a good sign for other ocean-going fish species migrating upstream to this restored habitat in the future.
“There used to be rainbow trout and steelhead here years ago,” said Glen. “Last summer, when I was standing in the clean water, I saw a whole school of silvers. It was the first time I’d seen a whole school like that, and I thought, ‘something must be working.’”
Although there are no cattle on the property now, Glen is considering reintroducing a few cows once the plantings are well established. In addition to the fencing, he has also added a livestock watering station away from the stream and is working with the South Santiam Watershed Council to design and develop a more sustainable stream crossing for cattle and equipment to occasionally move from one side of his property to the other through Hamilton Creek.
“We might come full circle [with the cows],” said Glen. “But now the waterways are fenced off and things are in order. We didn’t want them to destroy the waterway, and [the watershed council] helped facilitate that.”
The Willamette Valley is a patchwork quilt of farms, timberlands, small homesteads and public lands. It takes all kinds of projects and property owners to achieve our goals for watershed health, and watershed councils are key partners for communities invested in a sustainable water future.
Not only do the Soltaus now have a beautiful place to walk along the creek and watch wildlife, but these restoration efforts also make Oregon more resilient as we face increasing demands on our water resources.
Through a grant from Meyer Memorial Trust, OEC is interviewing watershed councils and landowners in the Willamette Valley to identify opportunities and challenges to advancing riparian restoration projects on privately owned land and accelerating basin-wide watershed health.