It started with a pizza box, delivered to a Moscow School Board meeting a couple of years ago.
Who ordered this? Board members wondered.
Inside was not dinner, but a notion of how the school district could help repair one of Idaho’s most degraded streams. The plans in the pizza box were sent by the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, and they spawned an unlikely coalition that created the Carol Ryrie Brink Nature Park.
Along with a site map of 25 acres the school district owns on the eastern edge of town were felt cutouts of architectural drawings of athletic fields and an elementary school the board hoped to build there.
Board members moved the cutouts around on the map and saw there was room for fields, a school and a five-acre riparian park along Paradise Creek.
Today, after decades of being reconfigured from a sinuous stream that supported cutthroat trout to a barren, angular ditch, Paradise Creek finally has seen its luck turn for the better.
The Paradise Creek watershed was among 35 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated as Idaho’s most abused. After the Idaho Conservation League sued the EPA for the shortness of that list, the number was expanded to 966, and Paradise Creek still was near the top.
Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of dollars of Clean Water Act grant money available through the Idaho Division of Environmental Quality and the EPA for stream restoration, said Adam Thornbrough, the institute’s water-quality program coordinator.
The 11-year-old institute, with seven staff members and about 100 active volunteers, took advantage of it. The institute also is teaming up with the university to build wetlands along 8.5 acres of the creek west of town.
“People now are interested in trying to fix their own back yard,” said Thornbrough.
All this rests on the solid foundation built by PCEI and the Moscow schools at Brink Park, named for the author who grew up in Moscow and set many of her turn-of-the-century stories on the Palouse.
“It has been a good partnership,” says Jack Hill, Moscow school superintendent. “It has enabled the schools to use something close by as a living lab.”
A 1966 aerial photo of a nearby section of Paradise Creek that had not been straightened gave stream restoration architects a model for restoring the creek bends and a flood plain through the new park.
That work took place in August 1995, and the design received an unanticipated stress test when historic floods swept through Moscow last winter.
“I thought it performed superbly,” says Thornbrough. The old, straightened creek would have likely discharged water and ice into a nearby residential neighborhood with fire hose velocity.
In the new flood plain, “ice collected here and meted out very slowly. It helped with maintaining the bridges, and it may have lessened flooding downstream,” Thornbrough says.
High school students and UI student organizations did much of the initial seeding and mulching. Lena Whitmore Elementary School students grew wildflowers from seed and planted them.
“The No. 1 concern of teachers was, ‘Don’t bring back muddy kids to the classroom,”’ Thornbrough recalls. “Getting kids out in the field was a new thing, and something the school district was not really used to. Lots of the teachers are excited about the site now. Even the kids are coming up with ideas what to do here.”
Planting continued at Brink Park through the summer, and earth moving and planting are now taking place at the new UI wetlands.
Again, UI students are involved. Thornbrough acknowledges stream projects that don’t encompass the entire watershed are Band-Aids. But the work begun at Brink Park is generating momentum. Two thousand hours of volunteer time have already been donated.
The creek may one day provide enough cold, clean water to support trout again.
“The most interesting thing that has occurred with the students and the park is the writing,” said Hill, the school superintendent.
“They go out there and they reflect, and then they write. The Moscow school district is pushing kids to become capable, confident in writing. Art is another definite spinoff,” Hill said.
“From their experiences there at the park, the students create. And I believe the best is yet to come. It hasn’t even been thought of yet.”