Inmates lend hand in creek project

Minimum-security inmates are working to root out invasive species and restore native plants in Yellowhawk Creek.

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Members of a work crew from Washington State Penitentiary clear away years-old lawn debris from a section of Yellowhawk Creek Tuesday. The crew have been at work for the past several weeks on sections of the creek as part of a stream restoration project. (April 10, 2012)

WALLA WALLA -- Some people from the inside have been getting time on the outside by putting a new look on two local streams.

A work crew from Washington State Penitentiary has been tearing out invasive plants and replacing it with native vegetation along sections of Yellowhawk and Garrison creeks. "We took a lot of trash out" as well, one noted.

Composed of minimum-security prisoners, the 10-man crew have been at the job for about a month, said Judith Johnson of Kooskooskie Commons and the Walla Walla Backyard Stream Team.

Crew members have been creating buffers alongside Garrison Creek at Pioneer Middle School and portions of Yellowhawk Creek. The goal is to improve water quality by removing the stands of Himalayan blackberries, reed canary grass and other unwanted vegetation and replanting native species.

On Tuesday, the crew was at work on Yellowhawk Creek where it flows behind the First Assembly of God Church. Brush and wood cleared from the stream bank that morning was piled up waiting to be hauled away for composting and black plastic tarps were stretched out along the bank to prevent the invasive species from regrowing.

"This had been blackberry bushes and (canary reed) grass," said Steve Munson, one of the crew members, describing the tall thickets of blackberry bushes he and the others had ripped out. The work included digging out the root balls of the plants and raking away the decaying vegetation underneath.

"This is mostly yard debris," Munson said. "So it's not a good foundation for the new plants." Other obstacles hidden for years by the thick growth included items such as an old concrete catch basin.

Sandi Jacobson, manager for the prison's minimum security unit, said the inmates working on the restoration project are all volunteers who are allowed off prison grounds after being carefully screened. The crew starts work at 8 a.m. and finishes by about 2 p.m. to return to the penitentiary. The prison's Correctional Industries is also involved by removing the debris and taking away to be composted.

The restoration effort is also being coordinated with the science program at Pioneer Middle School, which will involve students checking water quality in Garrison Creek this semester, Johnson said. Both Yellowhawk and Garrison creeks are listed by the state Department of Ecology as having poor water quality due to the presence of historic and current pollution from lawn chemicals.

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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Running With History

History, as well as water, flows along the creeks and streams of Walla Walla County.

Yellowhawk Creek is named after the Cayuse Chief Yellowhawk, a signer of the Treaty of 1855 who had his camp near the Braden School at the time of the signing.

Garrison Creek is named for the U.S. Army garrison stationed at Fort Walla Walla in the late 19th Century.

Both creeks are natural tributaries of Mill Creek that flow into the Walla Walla River below College Place.

Both creeks, like other tributaries to the Walla Walla River above the confluence with the Touchet River, are closed to fishing because of the presence of mid-Columbia steelhead and bull trout (Dolly Varden) that are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are also establishing a run of Chinook salmon that were extirpated from the Walla Walla River with the installation of Nine Mile dam in the early 20th century.

Source: Kooskooskie Commons/Walla Walla Backyard Stream Team

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