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Clint Nichols, a rural conservationist, points out a section Thursday of Wagner Creek approved for stream restoration near Talent. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Working for the water

TALENT — From time to time, Bob Hackett has taken a whack at the bulging sea of nonnative Himalayan blackberries that envelope a stretch of Wagner Creek that runs through his five-acre property.

"It's so overgrown and utterly invasive," Hackett says. "I'd love to be able to see what it's supposed to look like."

Now Hackett is getting help with those blackberries, and he'll get some native plants and fencing as well, as part of a cost-share program that's helping Wagner Creek landowners win back their stream for wild steelhead and improve practices on their lands.

Hackett is one of 11 landowners along more than a half-mile of lower Wagner Creek who will see their irrigation practices improve and their impacts on Wagner Creek lessen under a new project meant to boost water quality and fish habitat in this key upper Bear Creek Basin wild steelhead stream.

The state Department of Agriculture grant, funneled through the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, helped address a reach of the creek deemed a strategic stretch for improving water quality.

Plans are to reduce the amount of fertilizers and bacteria from cow manure and other sources that find their way into creeks through irrigation returns or during rainstorms.

Streamside lands on several parcels also will be stripped of nonnative blackberries and replanted with native plants to shade and reduce solar warming of the water. In some cases, such as on Hackett's land, the riparian areas will be fenced to keep out cattle that destroy streamside vegetation, increase erosion and put sediment into streams.

In some cases, ranchers will have their irrigation updated from 19th-century flood-irrigation systems to pressure-based sprinklers, providing a more efficient and stream-friendly way to water their land.

"It's hard to have stewardship without production," says Randy White, manager of the Jackson Soil and Water Conservation District, which has teamed with the Rogue River Watershed Council on this project. 

Wagner Creek water is labeled by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as unhealthy because of high water temperatures and bacteria. While bacteria levels are considered unhealthful for human contact, the high summer water temperatures and nutrient levels can be dangerous to wild steelhead, says Bill Meyers, DEQ Rogue Basin coordinator.

"Anyplace where we have an opportunity to increase riparian cover and prevent bacteria from getting into the streams are great projects," Meyers says. "That's a great project."

While lower Wagner Creek is inhospitable for wild steelhead, the headwaters of the creek and a handful of others in the Ashland area represent the best sources of cold water for Bear Creek, which is notorious for its high summer temperatures.

Helping protect that cool water in the creek's final stretch can only help Bear Creek as it rambles through four cities downstream of Wagner Creek's mouth, says Dan Van Dyke, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District fish biologist.

"That's the highest priority for restoration funding in the Bear Creek Basin because of all the cold water up there," Van Dyke says.

Eight of the properties affected are clustered along slightly more than a half-mile of the creek, while the remaining three are elsewhere. They all came to the conservation district as willing partners following a presentation last fall by state agriculture officials on ways to improve production on their land without contributing to pollution in public water bodies.

"We work voluntarily with landowners," says Clint Nichols, a rural conservationist with the conservation district. "We can only go where the phone calls bring us."

Hackett says he is happy to be able to get help through this program — for his land as well as the creek.

"It's a partnership," Hackett says. "There's a lot of work I'll be doing on this, but working together we can finally get control of these blackberries in a sustainable way."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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