Urban wetland at Peabody Creek – VIDEO | TheUnion.com
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Urban wetland at Peabody Creek – VIDEO

Tender green shoots of native wetland and upland grasses are starting to sprout out of mulch on contoured slopes leading to a short section of Peabody Creek.

Tiny saplings of native redbud and dogwood, and shrubs such as elderberry and California rose, are expected to bloom in the spring.

Peabody Creek now meanders across a half-acre lot at the edge of the Scotia Pines neighborhood in western Grass Valley before ducking into a cement box channel, beneath blackberry brambles, through Condon Park and on to Wolf Creek.



Not long ago, this section of the creek flowed in a straight channel along a private fence, past piles of brush and trash and rat nests.

On Nov. 8, it became the first creek restoration project to be completed in western Nevada County. And it could, project coordinator Katrina Smolen hopes, show how urban waterways can beautify neighborhoods and add value to nearby homes.



“We have great hope for the success of the project,” said B.J. Schmitt, who coordinates water quality monitoring along Peabody and other waterways for Wolf Creek Community Alliance. “It could be such a beautiful spot.”

“It’s a great demonstration project,” and it has immediate benefits, added Grass Valley Senior Engineer Trisha Tillotson, who oversaw the project. “The property didn’t look too great, and flooding has occurred on nearby properties” that could be reduced as a result of the project.

Future phases along Peabody Creek are planned for the stretch between Scotia Pines Circle and the pond at Condon Park, and for the stretch below the pond to the edge of the park, said Smolen, a professional hydrologist based in Olympic Valley who consults with communities on creek restoration.

But due to the poor economy, no work is being done to move ahead on the other phases – though Tillotson is keeping her eyes peeled for new grant opportunities, she said.

In 1995, when the Scotia Pines neighborhood was built, the developer deeded three plots of land to the city, including the lot bounded by Carpenter Street and Scotia Pines Circle, where a small wetlands had existed.

Nothing was done with the property over the years. Meanwhile Smolen, who had spent time living in both Grass Valley and the Lake Tahoe area, earned science degrees, became an expert in watershed restoration and environmental compliance, and opened consulting firm Hydro Restoration.

In 2005, she contacted then-Public Works Director Jeff Jewett about water projects he might be interested in doing.

“He took me to Condon Park and showed me the pond and asked me, ‘Can you get this dredged?'” Smolen recalled.

Peabody Creek feeds the pond at Grass Valley’s popular, 80-acre park. But it was filling up with sediment; cattails and other shallow aquatic plants moving into the upper edges, and bacterial outbreaks threatened public health.

“As a hydrologist, when there’s a problem, I look upstream,” Smolen said.

She found the empty lot, where straight channels fostered fast currents that were eroding big chunks of the bank. The channel crossed sewage lines – old, clay pipes – three times, an invitation for e. coli contamination.

Smolen created a plan to break the water out of its channel, bring it meandering to the low area in the center of the lot, restore the wetlands there, reduce sewer-line crossings to one, and join Peabody to flows from Rhode Island Ravine and a nearby storm drain into a semblance of a natural watercourse.

Smolen embarked on what turned out to be a long process of gaining city approval – difficulty she attributed to Jewett’s departure from the city, the project being the first of its kind taken on by city officials, confusion over the complex requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and her own naivete in approaching her first project.

It took two years for Smolen to procure five state and federal permits for the project, but another two and a half years to work through city processes, which included duplicating costly water-flow studies and addressing concerns from neighbors, she said.

City Council approved the project, for the third and final time, in October 2010.

Workers finished the project just as the season’s first rain started to fall.

Late that afternoon, Smolen watched as the channel from the storm drain filled, then flowed naturally into the new channel that soon would contain Peabody Creek – rather than pooling in the low spot and stagnating.

The new creekbed also appears to be working as envisioned.

“Now, you see a meandering stream, versus a channelized drainage, (a stream) that can spread its water out rather than erode its banks,” Smolen said.

State regulations and the city’s 1995 Scotia Pines annexation documents require the wetlands be maintained, Smolen said.

Crews funded by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped with the labor on the project, are committed to maintaining the wetlands for the next three years, City Engineer-Pubic Works Director Tim Kiser said.

Less clear is the future of the vegetation carefully planted on the lot, “some of the most beautiful wetlands plants” native to the area, Smolen said.

She had banked on fall rain to irrigate young plants, including black oak and red alder; but after an unusually dry fall, some of her seedlings are brown and dry.

Downstream of the lot past Scotia Pines Circle, some brush has been cleared along a creekside trail leading to Condon Park to allow access for fire trucks in case of emergency.

Smolen would like to see more brambles cleared, piles of old mine tailings removed, and a high-water channel built to connect Peabody Creek to a detention pond on the other side of the trail.

That would be phase 2 of the project, which has been discussed and conceptually approved at the department level at City Hall, engineer Tillotson said.

Phase 3 – also discussed by city officials – would include the dredging of the pond at Condon Park.

Downstream, where the creek has eroded its bed to form steep banks, heavy equipment would restore a naturally proportioned, 2-to-1 slope to water’s edge.

Himalayan blackberries would be cleared for another 100 yards downstream, and native plants would help control erosion.

Creek restoration specialist Katrina Smolen discusses the possibilities for continued restoration along Peabody Creek in Condon Park. Click on the video for more.

At present, no resources are dedicated to the rest of the project.

The biggest obstacle is funding, Tillotson said. Anyone interested in working with the city to seek money or write grants can call her at (530) 274-4352.

Another “big need is for communication among all the parties” to move phases 2 and 3 forward, Wolf Creek Community Alliance’s Schmitt said. “We just don’t have avenues set up for that.”

Meanwhile, volunteers with the alliance will continue to monitor water quality along Peabody.

Sediment coming from erosion on the corner lot is expected to decline, but sediment downstream from areas where brush has been cleared is likely to rise, Schmitt said.

Anyone interested in working with the nonprofit alliance to monitor water quality can visit http://www.WolfCreekAlliance.org to contact Schmitt.

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To contact Senior Staff Writer Trina Kleist, e-mail tkleist@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4230.


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