Long-constrained, the lower White River will soon have more room to move

Stephanie Shelton describes some of the ecological features of the Countyline project to colleagues.

When the region’s heavy rains start this fall, a rising White River will breach areas excavated from a levee that has held it in place for nearly a century and flow into its adjacent floodplain. Cameras mounted on cottonwood trees and engineered log structures will capture the moment, a historic one for both the river and King County.

The Countyline Levee Setback Project is the biggest one to date for the King County Flood Control District, a $24 million project that set back 6,000 lineal feet of levee and reconnected the river to 121 acres of its historical floodplain. Coupled with a future project on the river’s right bank, it is expected to provide far better flood protection to people who live and work in the City of Pacific, where a flood in 2009 served as a wake-up call to the hazards the constrained river posed to the surrounding community.

The project also marks a new chapter for the river’s ecological health. The White River has been a highly manipulated system – straightjacketed by rock and concrete, cut off from its historical channels, and accumulating sediment at a rapid rate – a situation that has led to flooding and decimated salmon habitat. Once it breaches the excavated levee, the river will begin to form braided channels and backwater habitat where juvenile salmon can linger before moving downstream and into Puget Sound. Beavers are expected to move in. Birds – from ospreys and eagles to warblers and flycatchers – will find habitat.

Stephanie Shelton, a senior ecologist in the Rivers section, said she and her colleagues will keep a close eye on salmon runs. The White River is the only one in King County to host spring-run Chinook, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It’s a highly imperiled population, with less than 10 percent of its historical White River population remaining. “They’re on the brink of extinction,” she said.

Restoring habitat for spring-run chinook, she added, has side benefits: Work done to protect them will provide important habitat to a number of other fish and wildlife species. “That’s why this is such an important project,” she said.

Biologists often focus on what they call “limiting factors” – those environmental factors that limit a species’ population size – and when it comes to salmon, a big limiting factor is habitat for juvenile fish to rear and feed. Many salmon species spend up to 90 percent of their lives in marine waters, but they rely on freshwater habitat during two key junctures in their complex life cycles – when mature adults spawn and when salmon fry emerge from eggs and out-migrate as juveniles. And that freshwater habitat has to be just right, Stephanie explained.

“After they emerge, young salmon can’t hang out in the fast-moving mainstem of a channel. To make sure they don’t get swept away, they need off-channel edge habitats, slow-moving refuge areas and food resources,” she said. Floodplains and side channels used to be more abundant. “But the way we’ve managed our rivers in the post-settlement environment, we’ve eliminated that kind of habitat. We’ve managed rivers for conveyance, not ecosystems.”

Construction crews have notched the existing levee in preparation for this fall’s higher water. When the rains come and the waters rise, about 50 percent of the river’s flow along the Countyline reach is expected to move into a new channel that will wend across the floodplain. And for the first time in a century, the lower White will again have slow-moving freshwater habitat that Stephanie and her colleagues expect will begin to support a fuller and more complex web of life as well as larger salmon recovery efforts in the watershed.

Shocking fish
Crews electro-fish along a side channel so that fish can be removed prior to in-water work.

This winter and for the next several years, Stephanie and a multi-disciplinary team of other ecologists, geomorphologists, and engineers will monitor the results. They’ll measure the reduction in flood hazards provided by the restoration project. They’ll see what the new channels do over time – how many braids are formed and the different kinds of aquatic habitat created as a result. They’ll want to see how many of the native plants they’re installing – 50,000 stems altogether – survive and how vegetative species establish and change over time.

And they’ll count fish. Baseline surveys were conducted starting in 2011. Fish biologists will periodically return over the next 10 years and seine for fish along the Countyline stretch, evaluating the results and learning how young salmon are using the new channels.

“The monitoring will be invaluable,” Stephanie said. “Restoration projects often don’t include this component, and thus it’s hard to know how successful a project is. We’re going to be out there, on the ground, figuring out how the river changes, the different kinds of habitat that result and what that means for fish and wildlife.”

“That’s the exciting part,” she added. “And it’s so important, since our results will inform future designs.”

Stephanie surveys side channel
Earlier this year, Stephanie watches as the old levee — prior to excavation — is inundated from winter flows.

When it comes to the White River, geology matters

Chris_CL tour_3
Senior Engineer Chris Brummer points out features of the White River and its surrounding areas during a tour with other Rivers staff members this summer.

Managers in the Rivers section don’t usually talk about what happened 5,600 years ago when discussing their current projects, but when it comes to the White River along the border between King and Pierce counties, it’s an important starting point.

Before the Osceola Mudflow spilled from the flanks of Mount Rainier, the Kent and Pacific valleys where under water, and the White was a short, steep river that cascaded off the mountain and into Puget Sound near where Auburn now sits.

The Osceola Mudflow – Rainier’s largest known lahar – and smaller lahars that followed profoundly changed the landscape, leaving in their wake an alluvial plain of glacial debris and pushing Puget Sound’s shoreline some 30 miles north to present-day Elliott Bay. The White River changed with it, meandering through this newly created valley before joining other flows and heading north to Puget Sound.

The White River is slowly filling up with sediment, leading to more frequent flooding in the City of Pacific.

That geologic history is relevant today, according to Chris Brummer, a senior engineer and geomorphologist in the Rivers section, because of the way the mudflow altered both the region’s topography and its human history. Over time, the fertile valley the lahars created became home first to indigenous people and then to European settlers, and today this populous region in south King County is dotted by towns and cities, farms and industries.

Add to this scenario another geologic phenomenon – channel aggradation. Those last several miles of the White River – the ones that didn’t exist before the lahars – are rapidly filling with sediment, making it shallower and thus much more prone to flooding with each passing year. The result, Chris said, “is an urgent situation.”

Chris is the project manager for the Countyline Levee Setback Project, the largest flood management project undertaken to date by the King County Flood Control District. The project, spanning 1.3 miles of river on the eastern edge of the City of Pacific and extending across the King to Pierce county boundary, reconnects the White River to 121 acres of its historical floodplain. It was substantially completed this fall – and none too soon.

According to investigations by King County and its consultants, the flood capacity of the White along the Countyline Reach has decreased dramatically over the last four decades, when dredging ceased due to environmental laws. Before the 1980s, the channel’s capacity was 25,000 cubic feet per second (CFS); now, it’s 6,000 CFS. Left alone, the channel would likely completely fill with sediment at the King-Pierce county line in little more than a decade and seek a new route through Pacific and Sumner.

The river’s sedimentation at Countyline is due in part to its topography. The White hits its “inflection point” near the City of Pacific, where the slope of the river decreases significantly. As a result, Chris said, the river at Countyline “loses a lot of its energy to transport sediment and starts depositing gravel and sand at a rapid rate.”

Sedimentation is also due to its source. The White’s headwaters are on an active volcano – a glacier-covered mountain that rises 6,000 feet above nearby peaks. Mount Rainier catches more weather, as a result. Its glaciers move rock and dirt, constantly scouring the steep flanks. And those rocks, like rocks on most volcanoes, are weak and crumbly.

The result, Chris said, is a lot of sediment. “Rivers draining active volcanoes in the Cascades produce four times more sediment than rivers that don’t.”

The river has been filling up with sediment for centuries, of course, and the White has a long history of flooding, as well as a long history of human intervention to try to stop the flooding.

Early on, farmers dynamited the riverbanks to divert floodwaters away from their properties. They reengineered the river, forcing it into what was then called the Stuck River. King and Pierce counties formed the Inter-County River Improvement Commission to jointly manage flooding along the White, Stuck and Puyallup rivers, building bulkheads, revetments, dikes, groins and other barriers.

And they dredged.

According to a report prepared by Terry Butler, a former Rivers Section geomorphologist, during the last century alone a million cubic yards of river channel sediments were removed from the Countyline Reach. Asked to translate, Chris said that’s about 50,000 dump trucks worth of sand, gravel and silt.

The impact on salmon populations and river health from all that dredging was profound, and in the 1980s, environmental laws brought an end to the dredging. That’s why Chris and his colleagues began working to find a new way to address the river’s propensity to fill up with gravel and rock.

And they did so with a deep appreciation of the river’s geologic history. During a tour this summer, Chris stood next to the levee in the middle of the project site, not far from the busy East Valley Highway, and noted with a smile that the group was standing on the former shoreline of Puget Sound.

“The processes that have led to this situation are still in place,” he told them. “We’ll still get the same amount of sedimentation. But it’ll spread out over 1,000 feet, rather than 150 feet. And that’s going to make a huge difference.”

White River beauty shot
The White River near the Countyline Project.

A big day for the White River

Countyline news conference_Josh_Michelle
Josh Baldi, Water and Land Resources Division director, looks at one of the posters at the event with Michelle Clark, Flood Control District executive director.

This is the first of three stories about the Countyline Levee Setback Project. Next week, we’ll post a story about the White River’s geology and a second one about the ecological implications of the setback project.

For nearly two decades, staff members in the Rivers section have been discussing the need to create more room for the sediment-rich White River to meander, a project that would provide much-needed flood protection for the neighboring City of Pacific and habitat restoration for imperiled salmon.

This week, that dream became a reality when the Countyline Levee Setback Project reached substantial completion.

And on Tuesday, under a vibrantly blue sky, the King County Flood Control District and staff from Rivers celebrated the milestone, holding a news conference on top of the new setback levee. Spread behind them was the river’s historical floodplain, a 121-acre swath that will inundate this fall when the rains come and the river rises. In the near-distance, a crew planted native trees and shrubs for the new riparian buffer. A bald eagle occasionally flew overhead.

“It’s hard to think about flooding on a day like today,” Supervisor Reagan Dunn, who chairs the Flood Control District, told several reporters. “But we’ve got to be ready for it.” Especially here at Countyline, he added, where the glacially fed White River is rapidly filling up.

Noting that the project provides both flood protection and salmon habitat, Supervisor Pete von Reichbauer, whose district encompasses Pacific, called the project “a win-win for the community and this incredible region.” Pacific Mayor Leanne Guier beamed when she took to the podium. “This is an extremely exciting day for those of us who live in Pacific,” she said.

Jason Lehto, a habitat restoration specialist with NOAA who spoke on behalf of the trustees for the Thea Foss Waterway Natural Resource Damage Assessment, also hailed the project: “We’re proud to be working on a project that is protecting lives and property. But it also has substantial benefits to salmon and other fish and wildlife species.”

Countyline news conference_Our Team
The project team enjoys a sweet moment at the end of the event. From left, Jeanne Stypula, Chris Brummer, Monica Walker and Stephanie Shelton.

The project was no small feat, in part because it marks the largest Flood Control District project to date: 4,500 linear feet of levee were removed and a new 6,000-foot setback levee was constructed. A 5,000-foot wood structure called a bio-revetment and several engineered logjams were installed to protect the new levee from erosive flood flows. Crews are currently planting 50,000 native plants and shrubs, revegetating an 18-acre riparian buffer – the final piece of this complex puzzle.

But it wasn’t only the scale of the project that made it challenging. The Countyline project was also jurisdictionally complex, involving two counties, federal agencies, two tribal governments and several funding partners. The total cost was $24 million: $17.9 million came from the Flood Control District; $4.8 million from the Thea Foss Waterway Natural Resource Damage Assessment contributing parties; $823,000 from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board and $500,000 from Pierce County.

Jeanne Stypula, managing engineer in Rivers, first started thinking about a setback levee some 20 years ago. Tuesday, after the crowds had dispersed, she smiled at her team. “This has been a really good day,” she said.

Watch the news event video.

Salmon recovery work awarded $5.12M in funding from local Cooperative Watershed Management grants

Talk to salmon recovery managers in King County about this year’s round of Cooperative Watershed Management grants, and they’ll describe projects that span the County’s watersheds: Science-based efforts to count out-migrating juvenile salmon; land acquisition for future floodplain restoration projects; noxious weed control and native tree planting along river corridors; and salmon-based educational programs geared for elementary-age kids.

All are important, they say. And all just received a critical boost from this one-of-a-kind grant program, funded each year by the King County Flood Control District.

What makes this grant program so vital, salmon recovery managers note, is not only that it provides needed funds for important projects. The program also brings partners together, enabling them to explore opportunities and set priorities, and acts as leverage for funds at both the state and federal level.

“There’s a lot of interest and a lot of need,” said Jason Mulvihill-Kuntz, salmon recovery manager for the Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed. “At a time when federal and state funding is uncertain, this pot of local funding has been incredibly important in keeping us on track in implementing many of our high-priority projects.”

“The Cooperative Watershed Management Grant Program has been instrumental in helping us build partnerships with the tribes and nonprofits and cities in our county,” said Elissa Ostergaard, the Snoqualmie Watershed Forum salmon recovery manager. “It also brings our partners to the salmon recovery table where we all have to make some hard decisions.”

All told this year, the Flood Control District issued $5.12 million in 42 grants to the four Water Resource Inventory Areas or WRIAs that oversee salmon recovery in King County.

Most of the funding this year – as in years past – supports on-the-ground restoration and protection projects, said Janne Kaje, who oversees the salmon-oriented regional partnerships in the County’s Water and Land Resources Division. But grants will also fund monitoring programs and salmon studies, projects few other sources support, as well as outreach and education.

Particularly important, Janne said, is the fact that the watershed partners – cities, tribes, nonprofits, and other groups – put forward the requests. “It’s not King County that decides what’s best. It’s the people who work in these watersheds who decide what needs to be funded,” he said.

The program has been funded by the Flood Control District since 2012 and, before that, by the King Conservation District. It’s been in existence, in one form or another, nearly 20 years.

“This is local money,” Janne noted. “And that’s important to other funders. It shows that as a community we have skin in the game. I don’t know any other county in the Puget Sound region that has this level of investment.”

So what are the highlights from this year? Here are a handful that stand out from each of the four WRIAs.

Snoqualmie Watershed Forum (WRIA 7)

Elissa calls the $64,512 grant to the Tulalip Tribes for beaver relocation “a win for farmers and a win for salmon.” The project, now in its fourth year, traps lowland beavers considered a nuisance to farmers in the Snoqualmie Watershed and moves them to headwater streams on federal lands, where their “work as ecosystem engineers,” as Elissa put it, is a benefit. Their engineering feats are very useful in headwater streams, where they create pools that provide habitat for juvenile salmon and where the woody material they recruit hosts insects that provide food to the fish. “Our fish evolved with beavers,” Elissa said. “And this is a project that is excellent for fish.”

Another noteworthy grant went to Sound Salmon Solutions, which will use the $99,898 award to conduct 11.4 acres of restoration along the mainstem Snoqualmie River. “It’s so important to plant trees along the banks of rivers, because they create shade, which in turn creates cool water that salmon need,” she said.


Other significant projects include:

  • A $60,000 grant to the Tulalip Tribes to continue the annual monitoring of juvenile salmon outmigration in the Snoqualmie River basin.
  • A $28,431 grant that will enable King County to measure fish density in edge habitats in the Upper Carlson Restoration Project.
  • A $75,000 grant to Forterra to purchase 26 acres of high-quality habitat along the South Fork of the Skykomish River near Baring.

Lake Washington/Cedar/Sammamish Watershed (WRIA 8)

A $362,700 grant to Seattle Public Utilities will fund an acquisition project along the Cedar River that Jason called a high-priority, setting the stage for a restoration project that would reconnect the river with its floodplain to provide better habitat for salmon and reduce flood risk in the area. Much of the Royal Arch Reach about 15 miles upstream from the Cedar’s mouth is entirely within the channel migration zone. This acquisition – about a third of an acre – will support ongoing efforts to reconnect the river to its floodplain along this reach.

“That’s the type of work that is the highest priority in our watershed’s recovery plan,” Jason said. “Development in our floodplains has reduced the area where juvenile salmon can rear and grow. The more we can do to open those places back up to salmon, the greater our chances of increasing juvenile salmon survival.”

Another significant project, he said, is a $583,142 grant to the state Department of Natural Resources to remove armoring around Bird Island near the mouth of the Cedar River in Lake Washington, which has taken away critical shallow areas that young salmon need to find food and steer clear of predators before heading out to Puget Sound. The shoreline enhancement project will enable project managers to remove debris, add sand and gravel, install log structures, and plant the shoreline area with native plants – all to create a more natural shoreline.


Other noteworthy projects in WRIA 8 include:

  • Two projects totaling $299,972 to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and King County to fund critical monitoring of juvenile Chinook salmon and spawning adult salmon numbers, providing data that will enable salmon managers to better understand whether or not the watershed’s salmon populations are improving.
  • A $81,312 grant to Forterra to initiate efforts to control invasive Japanese knotweed and restore native plant communities along Bear Creek, a tributary to the Sammamish River, by applying a highly successful model for engaging landowners in controlling invasive species and restoring riparian areas.

The Green/Duwamish Watershed (WRIA 9)

At $882,799, the grant to the City of Kent for the Downey Farmstead Project along the Green River was the largest CWM grant the flood district issued this year. Doug Osterman, the salmon recovery manager for the Green/Duwamish Watershed (WRIA 9), said it’s well-deserved. “This project is the poster child for the way salmon recovery, flood control, and recreation are intertwined.”

The high-visibility project will support Kent’s efforts to construct nearly 2,000 lineal feet of side channel to the Green River, providing rearing and refuge habitat for threatened Chinook and other salmon species. It also provides 130 acre-feet of flood storage to reduce flooding in both urban and agricultural areas near this stretch of the Green.

Floodplain projects in the Lower Green build on previous investments to protect spawning habitat in the upper parts of the watershed. “If we’re going to invest in spawning habitat in the middle Green, investing in rearing habitat in the Lower Green is important,” Doug explained. Salmon coming out of the upper watershed, where the habitat is good, struggle to make it through the gauntlet of the region’s urban areas. “You’re obviously not getting much value (of the upper watershed work) if the fish die before they get to Puget Sound. So this project addresses a major factor in the decline of salmon.”


Other important grants funded in WRIA 9 include:

  • A $250,000 grant for acquisitions along the lower Green River, allowing for future restoration and habitat improvement efforts.
  • A $90,000 grant to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to operate a smolt trap to measure outmigration of juvenile salmon.
  • A $21,000 grant to Seattle Aquarium’s Beach Naturalist Program, which trains volunteers to engage the public about the importance of the nearshore environment.

The Puyallup/White Watershed (WRIA 10)

WRIA 10, which is only partly in King County, applied for two grants, both of which were funded. One is a $113,050 grant to fund a portion of the construction costs of the Middle Boise Creek Riparian Restoration Project. Boise Creek is a tributary of the White River – and while it’s been heavily modified, it’s also highly productive for salmon, said Stephanie Shelton, a senior ecologist in the County’s River and Floodplain Management Section who leads King County’s salmon recovery efforts in WRIA 10. The other is a $113,050 grant to the Puyallup Tribe to monitor the outmigration of juvenile salmon on the White River, a project that will provide critical data to help target recovery efforts in the watershed.

The White river hosts ESA-listed spring-run Chinook, the last existing early returning or “spring” chinook population in southern Puget Sound, Stephanie said, and restoration efforts are ongoing.

“Unfortunately, we have very little data to help us understand the effects of our recovery work. The information the tribe collects will be invaluable.”


Logjams make the Cedar River unsafe for recreation, but they’re great for fish

A cottonwood spans the Cedar River, one of many downed trees that have led to the river’s closure.

The King County Sheriff’s Office announced earlier this month that a portion of the Cedar River is closed to all in-river recreational use for the second season in a row due to numerous logjams, downed trees, hanging limbs and other blockages.

The river is closed from river mile 4.5 to river mile 13.5, a nine-mile stretch from Renton to Maple Valley. Twelve blockages – nine of them serious – make the river too dangerous for recreation, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The blockages are similar in number and severity to last year – and all are due to naturally occurring processes.

John Koon, a senior engineer in the County’s Rivers Section, recently walked the banks of the Cedar and could see why law enforcement made the decision. He saw two punctured rafts wrapped around a logjam, a sobering sight. John has been monitoring rivers in King County for more than two decades. “I don’t remember the Cedar ever having so many hazards.”

But there’s an important twist in this ongoing discussion over the state of the Cedar River. The strainers, spanners and logjams may be bad for those who want to float the Cedar, but they’re excellent for fish, including two runs – fall chinook and steelhead – that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and protected under tribal treaty rights.

Adding to the situation is the unique nature of the Cedar, a river that brings this dilemma into focus like no other in the region. The Cedar is just the right size to be closed by a spanner and just slow enough for some of those spanners to remain in place. It’s near an urban center – and thus to people who want recreate in it, including boaters, anglers and those who like to float the river. And all that wood provides invaluable habitat to ESA-listed fish, fish that the state and tribes co-manage with an eye towards ensuring their survival and resilience.

“We’re working right now with the tribes, the state and other jurisdictions to try to figure out the best path forward with the Cedar. But there are no good models,” said Josh Baldi, director of the Water and Land Resources Division.

“How do you make a river safe for recreationalists while improving habitat for fish? We know how to do this when designing restoration projects, but it’s far trickier with natural wood recruitment. This is largely unchartered terrain.”

So why does wood in a river matter so much? Large pieces of wood trap other pieces of wood, creating complex habitat that supports salmon at several stages in their life cycle, explains Sarah McCarthy, a senior ecologist in the County’s Water and Land Resources Division.

Wood, for instance, retains gravel, which is needed for spawning. It encourages riverbed scour, which in turn creates pools where salmon can rest, find deep, cool refuge and hide from predators. Logjams slow down the flow and sometimes split a channel, creating new channels and backwaters critical to healthy salmon runs. Wood is also the basis for an aquatic food web – invertebrates live in the downed trees and logs and occasionally fall into the river, where they’re snatched up by hungry fish.

“The research is clear that wood in rivers and streams improves habitat quality,” Sarah said.

Western Washington’s rivers used to be filled with wood. But over the course of the past century or so, much of that wood was removed or prevented from falling into rivers – the result of logging and agricultural practices, navigational improvements and flood control efforts.

Those actions came with a cost. The removal of wood led to the destruction of salmon habitat and added to the steady decline of salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Today, 17 distinct salmon populations are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA in Washington. And while wood removal was seen as a way to provide flood protection, in many instances it made the situation worse – causing faster, more unconstrained flows, erosion and channelization.

Government agencies, including King County, are now seeking a new path, trying to balance all of these competing forces in support of rivers that are healthy and resilient and that are good for both people and fish. As a result, the County routinely incorporates wood into both restoration and flood control projects, using the best science and engineering practices to do so and keeping stakeholders – including river safety advocates and recreationalists – informed throughout the process.

Earlier this month, project managers in the Water and Land Resources Division held two public meetings to discuss several current projects that will use placed wood either to improve habitat or provide flood protection.

As for the Cedar, where naturally occurring wood – not wood used in restoration or flood control projects – is making in-water recreation dangerous, Kate Akyuz, a senior environmental scientist in the Rivers Section, is working with the Sheriff’s Office, state officials, tribal biologists and others to determine a course that makes sense. It’s possible, for instance, that some of the wood could be shifted or removed, she said, noting that doing so would require the County to mitigate for that removal by creating salmon habitat elsewhere.

Josh attended one of the recent public meetings about large wood where he discussed his own love of river rafting as well as the environmental challenges at a place like the Cedar River.

“We have a lot of needs we’re trying to balance in a river that is important to many different constituents,” he said after the meeting. “Our goal is to approach this issue using both solid science and thoughtful public policy and to do what’s right for both people and fish.”

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This tree spans the Cedar at river mile 9.7.