A fledgling project to restore a 40-acre wetlands in south Salem is already producing results, says the City of Salem. There, as part of its efforts to enhance Salem’s waterways, a division of the Department of Public Works is mimicking natural systems on a plot of land near Fairview Industrial Drive and 27th Court SE.
The results, which are already being seen, will be far reaching. They include the reduction of flooding, the improvement of the city’s water quality and the preservation of habitat for a broad spectrum of native species. The wetlands will also bolster the city’s ability to accommodate a changing climate.
“Tree frogs and salamanders are returning, and that’s because the water has been restored,” says Grey Wolf, Natural Areas and Green Stormwater Program Coordinator for the City. “Wildlife will continue to flock back to this area.”
Wolf stewards the City’s wetlands, overseeing field crews that maintain public Green Stormwater infrastructure facilities and natural areas across the city. The restoration at the Fairview Industrial site has involved two simultaneous efforts; first to remove invasive plants and the second to construct a cement water control structure (a gate) so the area can be flooded in a natural manner as local wetlands have seasonally flooded for millennia.
The current version of the gate will have its opening filled by stop logs that can be raised and lowered; the first generation was created with sandbags and other natural debris, Wolf says, “assisted” by a beaver who lives on the acreage and brought branches and sticks to the blockage.
Invasives are removed by weed whackers and by mechanical means from 10 acres. “By deliberately enhancing 10 acres” of the low-lying land, Wolf says, “we expect to see collateral improvement across the entire acreage – because it will now flood.”
Simply allowing an area like this to flood means invasive plants will die and invasive species like bullfrogs will keep away. This is because organisms like these haven’t adapted to these wet conditions.
“We want to do things the natural way,” Wolf says, “to look at things like an organic farmer or permaculturalist would. We want to tend the land as the Native Americans did before us.”
The Fairview Industrial effort has been so successful that Wolf now sees hundreds of bees on the land and a vast number of birds, including great blue heron, mallard ducks, spotted sandpiper, red-tailed hawks, coopers hawks and marsh wren. The area offers nesting boxes for birds and a bat box; Wolf has seen bats and a family of deer that call this place home.
“We are working with nature, not against it,” Wolf says. “These wetlands are the areas that will increase the city’s resiliency in the face of climate change.”
City-maintained paths run along and through the site, providing opportunity for every Salem citizen to view the same kind of nature.
The Fairview Industrial wetlands is only one piece of the City’s stormwater restoration endeavors, says Keith Bondaug-Winn, Stormwater Quality Supervisor for City of Salem’s Public Works Department. After experience with laborers who cleared debris from along creeks after the 1996 flood event, “in 2003, management decided to hire college-level environmental students as interns to clean the creeks, because they had a better sense of how to balance flood control with habitat preservation; instead of just removing everything from the stream banks, vegetation removal became more strategic to preserve water quality and habitat.”
2003 was the same year the stream crew began working on small stream bank restoration projects by removing invasive plants and replanting with natives along Salem waterways.
Currently, the stormwater section of the Public Works Department hires between 8 and 12 college interns yearly to work the summer months as well as Department of Corrections Inmate crews who help with vegetation management along waterways and in ditches. “These areas have been identified in stormwater modeling studies that show vegetation management is necessary to reduce local flooding,” says Bondaug-Winn.
Salem’s Michael Slater, President of the Board of the Mission Street Parks Conservancy notes how Salem’s year-round and seasonal streams have, since pioneer days, “have been turned into a network of drainage ditches, canals and power sources to the detriment of the natural environment.” He commends the City’s investment “into restoring streams: removing concrete channels, unearthing buried streams and replanting riparian areas.” The health of Salem’s streams is important, Slater says, because “healthy streams absorb and store stormwater, which reduces flooding and related property damage and loss of life. They also help remove nutrient pollution that causes algal blooms and ‘dead zones’ in downstream rivers and oceans.”
For Wolf, every day in the field brings satisfaction. “When I came to Oregon,” she says, “I realized I wanted to change the way people see our natural areas. I wanted to make these places more accessible and to educate people about natural systems. Now I do that every day.”