East Canyon Creek is still struggling
September 15, 2015
In the Swaner Preserve just north of I-80 there’s a device that constantly reports the vital signs of East Canyon Creek, standing guard like the monitors that read the pulse and respiration of ailing hospital patients. And, since East Canyon Creek drains about 144 square miles of western Summit County, that device, by extension, also monitors the health of the entire watershed.
So how’s the patient, doc?
Local anglers say there’s good fishing in East Canyon Creek for brown trout and suckers at certain times of year – when the water’s not too low or too warm. However, they say it has been decades since the creek in the Snyderville Basin supported a healthy population of native fish such as Bonneville cutthroat trout.
"The ecosystem still undergoes just a myriad of pressures, from all of the surrounding developments to everything happening upstream to people fertilizing their lawns, etc., etc.," said Brittany Ingalls, Swaner conservation coordinator. "And then you add to that increasing temperatures with climate change, and the fish really have a hard time in that stream."
But with Swaner and its volunteers having lavished their attention on the stream for the past decade, are there any signs that the natives are returning to the creek?
"I guess I don’t want to say it so harshly, but no," Ingalls said. "The short answer is just no."
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For an explanation, Ingalls walked over to an interactive display mounted on a wall in the Swaner EcoCenter. A few taps on the screen brought up a collection of graphs showing historical data taken from the monitor on the creek. She pointed to one that tracks dissolved oxygen in the water. A close look at the graph showed the oxygen levels swinging wildly within every 24-hour period: up at day, down at night.
"Especially some of these sensitive, very sensitive native fish species that we used to see in abundance in East Canyon Creek — for instance, Bonneville cutthroat trout — just cannot withstand the huge swings in dissolved oxygen which is their mechanism to breathe, obviously, underwater," she said. Brown trout, on the other hand, are more tolerant of warmer temperatures and swings in dissolved oxygen.
The culprit, Ingalls said, is the profusion of plant life – known collectively as macrophytes – that grows along the bottom of the stream. Those plants generate oxygen during the day but absorb it at night. And that explosion of macrophytes, she said, is caused by "a nutrient overload in the system, and that comes from people’s fertilizer, dog waste, all kinds of things like that."
What makes the creek’s monitoring station unusual is that it takes readings every 15 minutes and sends them directly to the EcoCenter and to Utah State University. Most of Utah’s streams and lakes don’t get that kind of attention.
"So we have quite an impressive backlog of data, especially at that frequency, because certain indicators like dissolved oxygen fluctuate significantly even just throughout the day. So to do one measurement every several days, or once a day even, really doesn’t give you a very good picture," Ingalls said.
The responsibility for maintaining the monitor falls to a pair of local volunteers, Randy Logan, a retired mechanical engineer, and Skip Sedivec, a retired biology professor. Every other week they pack up a laptop computer and other equipment and head for the site.
It turns out that those troublesome macrophytes that keep out the cutthroat trout also cause problems for Logan and Sedivec.
"They really cause an issue with the tubes," Sedivec said. "The station is set up where you have these four-inch tubes (in the creek) and you run the sensors down into them. But the plants get caught up around the tubing."
The plants can interrupt the flow of the water, causing the readings to go haywire. So the first thing that Sedivec did during a recent visit to the site was wade into the creek and start pulling weeds.
In the meantime, Logan stood on the bank and plugged the laptop into the station’s electronics. In addition to dissolved oxygen, he said, the monitor also tracks the temperature, acidity (pH), turbidity (sediment) and conductivity (the presence of heavy metals or other minerals) of the water. He said it also used to measure the flow of the creek – until last October, when a beaver built a dam just downstream of the monitor.
"Instead of a nice pristine stream flow, now we have a pond in front of our monitoring site, which has changed the dynamics of the water flow," Sedivec said.
With the plant life out of the way, Sedivec climbed out of the creek, walked over to the computer, crouched down and blocked out the sunlight with a towel over his head like an old-time photographer. As Logan poured various potions into a tube containing the sensors, Sedivec used the computer to calibrate the instruments. They repeat this process every two weeks throughout the year.
Although the wetlands near the EcoCenter act as a filter, the impact of upstream activity is often felt at the monitoring station, Ingalls said.
"If some kind of large building project is taking place upstream, or there’s a big rainstorm and building projects have got unprotected sediment or dirt or soil or whatever we often will see an increase in turbidity afterward."
Even though the beaver dam scrambled the water-flow measurements at the site, Ingalls said that the presence of the furry critters at several points on the creek "does awesome things for the riparian corridor there. Beavers are restoration masters."
She said that, when the water backs up behind the dams, it creates ponds with deeper, colder water which is ideal for fish. It also recharges the groundwater upstream, which irrigates the vegetation.
"That’s a heartening sight, to see so many beavers, because, in order for beavers to establish in an area, obviously there has to be enough vegetation to support them building dams and their dens. And we have not seen this level of beaver activity in quite a while, as far as I know. And so that’s good news. That means that the food chain of the ecosystem is rebounding in a positive way."
Logan said that the beavers had cropped down the willows around the monitoring site but they were already showing new growth.
Planting willows along the banks of the creek has been a priority for Swaner volunteers for about a decade. Ingalls estimated that, in that time, about 12,000 have been planted, with another 1,000 to 1,500 added each year. This year’s willow project is scheduled to take place on Oct. 8-10 (harvesting) and Oct. 22-24 (planting).
"Those willows are a great restoration tool because they grow very quickly and so they shade the stream and can help solidify and stabilize the banks so that then erosion doesn’t continue to increase," she said. "And erosion is a problem, obviously, because it widens out the stream, thereby making everything more shallow, closer to the surface, warmer, and therefore less healthy for the fish populations."
Parkites may not know it, but their discarded Christmas trees also sometimes end up in the banks of East Canyon Creek. Ingalls said that Swaner uses some of the trees collected each year by the Park City Lacrosse Club to create "conifer revetments" at vulnerable points where the banks are being eroded by the creek. When anchored to the banks, they create a buffer to deflect the water and form a "deposition zone" where soft silt can collect and allow vegetation to take root.
To volunteer for the willow-planting project or other opportunities at the Swaner Preserve, go to swanerecocenter.org.
Sedivec and Logan belong to a volunteer group known as Utah Water Watch. Typically, beginning volunteers are asked to visit an assigned site on a nearby creek or lake once a month for seven months out of the year. With equipment provided by Utah State University Extension, they measure turbidity, pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen and the presence of E. coli, as well as making a number of visual observations. For information on the program, go to http://extension.usu.edu/utahwaterwatch/
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