This year the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing required field inspections take place with a different protocol to keep staff safe. Despite this additional challenge and the vast number of facilities to inventory, staff completed inspections on all 511 river facilities in one year – an activity normally done over a two-year cycle.
The 2019-2020 flood season was one for the record books. The first flood event took place on the Snoqualmie River in October 2019 and the season concluded with a total of seven flood events having occurred in King County by the end of February 2020.
Damage was found on 136 facilities and plans for emergency repairs or longer-term improvements to remedy the damage are underway. This assessment and planning is critical in order to prepare for another flood season which began on October 1 of this year.
The flooding was due to extensive rain throughout western Washington. Average monthly rainfall totals throughout the region in December 2019, January and February were far greater than normal. After the widespread flood in February that received a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, conducting post-flood inspections and triaging damage to river facilities was a high priority for the King County Flood Control District (Flood District).
River facilities, such as leveesand revetments, play an important role in protecting people, neighborhoods and infrastructure against damage from erosion and flooding. The King County Water and Land Resources Division, as the primary service provider to the District, maintains more than 370 revetments and 130 levees across six river basins from the South Fork of the Skykomish River in the north to the White River in the south on the border with Pierce County.
Each river facility is scheduled for inspection on a two-year cycle to look for any damage that could weaken its effectiveness. Inspections largely take place in the spring and summer or after a flood event and involve trained staff making careful observations of the riverbank facilities as well as floating the river in boats to identify potential problems.
Everyone in King County is encouraged to be flood ready. Information on what to do before, during and after a flood is available at kingcounty.gov/prepareforflooding.
About the King County Flood Control District
The King County Flood Control District is a special purpose government created to provide funding and policy oversight for flood protection projects and programs in King County. The Flood Control District’s Board is composed of the members of the King County Council. The Water and Land Resources Division of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks develops and implements the approved flood protection projects and programs.
About the King County Water and Land Resources Division
The Water and Land Resources Division works to protect the health and integrity of King County’s natural resources. Employees work to reduce flood risks, monitor water quality and restore wildlife habitat; manage, and reduce the harmful impacts from stormwater, noxious weeds and hazardous waste; create sustainable forestry and agriculture; and protect open space to support all of these efforts.
On any given day, the people in the Water and Land Resources Division are working on everything from the broadest of environmental issues of our landscape, to the microscopic work that takes place in our lab to provide one of the most crucial assets in our field – data. From stewarding the region’s expansive forests, to measuring organisms that are invisible to the naked eye in our waterbodies, there is no job too big or too small for us to take on to help ensure clean water and healthy habitat in King County.
“The Water and Land Resources Division carries out a very diverse mission. Using nearly a dozen different funding sources, we provide the science and the technical expertise to support residents and decision makers in their stewardship of our natural resources. Like our sister divisions that serve as wastewater and solid waste utilities, we are, in essence, a watershed utility.”
Josh Baldi, WLRD director
A significant proportion of our workforce spend their days in the field monitoring the effectiveness of our projects and programs; preventing or eradicating threats to our environment; building or repairing critical infrastructure that is unseen by the casual observer; meeting with residents to provide technical assistance for their land or business; and protecting or restoring the habitat that the region’s native species rely on.
When the COVID-19 emergency hit, WLRD staff quickly adopted new safety practices for field and lab work and deployed new online tools for public engagement and partner meetings to continue delivering essential services to our customers safely and without interruption.
Under the microscope, behind the data
The King County Environmental Laboratory was already well into a major construction project to replace critical infrastructure – fume hoods and heating systems – when the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic fully hit. Employees at the lab acted quickly to continue essential sample analysis required for public health, water quality permit compliance, public swimming beach monitoring, and support for the Solid Waste and Wastewater Treatment divisions.
Workflows drastically changed to maximize teleworking; moving from paperwork to digital platforms and ensuring safe distancing for in-person work at the laboratory. Communication with our customers and the public never slowed, and County programs continued providing essential services. (Check out, The King County Environmental Lab: Resilience and Adaptation Under Pressure.)
Teams of WLRD scientists adapted monitoring practices to ensure the safety of field staff by adjusting for social distancing, wearing masks, and conducting training and planning sessions outdoors or by teleconference.
WLRD’s scientists continued their collaborative work with Public Health – Seattle & King County to monitor the health and public safety of swimming beaches; generated new research about threatened juvenile Chinook salmon in the Snoqualmie River; continued their groundbreaking work to preserve imperiled Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon by partnering with a private hatchery on Orcas Island; and promoted and coordinated best practices for managing beavers.
Responding to multiple disasters
In early 2020, before COVID was a household word, King County responded to the most severe flooding in decades which led to a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, the 13th declaration of this kind since 1990.
Due to the severity of the flooding countywide in January and February, damage inspection of all 511 levees and revetments – normally done biannually – was accelerated and completed by October to quickly schedule any needed repairs. Levees and revetments are essential facilities that help to reduce flood and erosion risks to life and safety, homes, roads and farms and other businesses.
In 2020, six repair projects and seven flood-risk reduction projects were completed across six river basins. The Flood Warning Center, now in its 60th year, restructured operations to ensure continuity in delivering critical flood information to agencies and residents while adhering to social distancing guidelines brought about by COVID-19. A new Countywide Capital Team was created to expand capacity for responding to urgent river facility repairs. WLRD is the primary contracted service provider to the King County Flood Control District for flood warning, facility inspection and repair, and flood hazard management capital projects.
New programs and pandemic support
King County launched the nation’s first County-led Forest Carbon Program, to sell carbon sequestration credits. The revenue supports the King County Land Conservation Initiative and provides incentives for preserving and enhancing privately owned and managed forests. The program received an award from the National Association of Counties for innovation in sustainability.
Forest restoration projects that improve forest health and enhance opportunities to sequester carbon have increased and directly contributed to the success of planting 1 Million Trees with partners across King County.
WLRD’s leadership through the King County Farmland Preservation Program over the past 40 years has kept nearly 16,000 acres of the best farmland available for production. Focused on equitable outcomes, the program also ensures land access is available to underserved communities and new farmers.
King County’s farming industry was hit hard by COVID-19. Our agriculture team responded by helping launch the Local Food Finder map, connecting consumers directly with farmers when farmers markets and restaurants closed or reduced service early in the pandemic. The ag team also supported the distribution of $1.4 million in federal CARES Act funding to support farmers, farmers markets, food banks and senior centers.
Clean water, healthy habitat
Water and Land staff are part of the regional Hazardous Waste Management Program to reduce exposure to hazardous materials and prevent toxic compounds from entering the environment. All prevention services were shifted to online and phone-only services. Vouchers were offered for hazardous materials management and personal protective equipment was distributed. A new website increased access to information about natural yard care, safe disposal of hazardous materials, and water quality protection by offering this information in 13 languages. The “Guilt Free KC” and “Ojo con el Cloro” (“Careful with Bleach”) campaigns promoted safe hazardous waste disposal and safer cleaning practices to protect human health and the environment – especially relevant as people turned to harsh chemicals like bleach to rid their homes of germs during the pandemic.
Landward, the Noxious Weed Control Program developed new field safety protocols to keep employees safe as they continued to control noxious weeds to protect people and the environment. Priority was given to high-risk infestation control that put people and critical resources in danger, and to property owners highly impacted by noxious weeds. Despite challenges, knotweed control was maintained on the Cedar, upper Snoqualmie, Skykomish, middle and lower Green rivers, and Soos Creek. In all, specialists surveyed more than 8,000 infestations of regulated noxious weeds, 86 percent of which were controlled.
The Noxious Weed Program’s Healthy Lands Project (HeLP) carried out weed control on more than 20 new public and private open space parcels, improving public benefits and supporting green jobs on nearly 70 acres. HeLP supported the new North Highline open space property purchased by King County Parks through a new match-waiver program that increases open space for underserved communities.
Adjusting to the world of on-line presentations, staff competed for state-managed grants for Floodplains by Design and Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration dollars and received number-one rankings in both highly competitive programs for construction of the Fall City Floodplain Restoration Project to restore 145 acres of floodplain process and reduce 100-year flood elevations on over 300 acres of Snoqualmie River habitat. The grants would put the division in position to construct the roughly $15 million project in 2022.
Managing stormwater is another key component to protecting water quality. In 2020, significant steps were taken toward developing a Green Stormwater Infrastructure incentive program within unincorporated King County. Additionally, the Our Green Duwamish coalition used innovative tools to engage partners watershed planning efforts for increased clean water.
Stormwater management includes moving runoff through a system of pipes and culverts, many of which are known barriers to fish passage that hamper efforts to restore weak fish populations. Removing these barriers is one of the most effective ways to quickly restore salmon habitat access. King County Fish Passage Restoration Program employees spent 2020 in the field creating an inventory of these barriers around the county.
As of November, the field crew had completed 1,438 site visits in 2020, reaching a total of 2,851 site visits since spring 2019,and identifying almost 800 fish passage barriers at County assets. The next step is to determine how removing these barriers will be prioritized to help the most fish get to the best habitat as soon as possible.
The above video shows chum spawning inside the new Green River Road box culvert into Mary Olson Creek near Auburn. The use of the culvert by fish so soon after construction was completed, shows the success of the design and construction of the project by the King County Roads Division.
Supporting and protecting King County’s watersheds ranges from creating expansive, multi-generation visions for our work, to monitoring the smallest organisms and connecting their health to ours. It is work done in the field, in the lab, and now via online video calls. All of it is done with respect to the safety of our employees and the commitment to our work.
Between Seattle and Auburn, drivers cross over countless creeks and rivers. Each fall, salmon and steelhead swim a similar journey from Puget Sound, up the Duwamish River leading to the Green River, and into many tributary streams around Auburn. These creeks are vital habitat for salmon. Streams provide areas for salmon to reproduce, hatch, and grow, so young salmon are plentiful and healthy when they enter the ocean.
After leaving local waterways, salmon and steelhead spend several years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to King County waterways to repeat the cycle.
Just like people rely on roads to cross over creeks as they move throughout the region, salmon and steelhead rely on barrier-free creeks flowing under roads to reach vital upstream habitats.
This summer, King County Roads replaced a culvert carrying Mary Olson Creek under Green River Road near Kent. This project ensured that the road crossing the creek is up to current standards and restores fish passage to Mary Olson Creek. Prior to the project, a metal pipe or “culvert” carried the creek under the road. This culvert was old and in poor condition. It was also too small and steep for most fish to swim through and blocked salmon from migrating upstream of the road.
The new creek crossing uses a box culvert that is wide and deep enough to make sure that the creek under the road is “passable” for all species of fish, including salmon and steelhead. This work opens up more than 2,000 feet of stream habitat to full access by salmon and steelhead.
The county completed construction of the new culvert in late August and this fall, the county will plant some trees and shrubs along the creek channel to improve habitat conditions. The project, which cost about $900,000, provides a road crossing that benefits all, whether they are people travelling on the road or fish swimming in the creek.
UPDATE: This video, taken Nov. 18, 2020, shows chum spawning inside the new Green River Road box culvert into Mary Olson Creek near Auburn. The use of the culvert by fish so soon after construction was completed, shows the success of the design and construction of the project by the King County Roads Division.
Editor’s note: this story was written prior to the pandemic and social distancing requirements were in place. Team members are currently using masks and social distancing protocols.
Hands down, one of the coolest job at King County is working with the stream bug monitoring program, and arguably one of the most underappreciated.
Stream bugs don’t generate the same hype as salmon or Orcas, but they’re deserving of the same attention. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that most of us associate verbs like squashing, swatting, and killing with the word bugs. Regardless of how we humans feel about them, bugs rule the world, and we’d be wiser to learn to share it with them.
King County’s stream bug monitoring team thinks differently about bugs. They recognize the important role bugs play as indicators of the health of Washington’s watersheds.
On this field day, members of King County’s Stream Team collected samples from a handful of streams in Bellevue, Washington. Their first stop was the Coal Creek Natural Area, an urban greenspace that is just big enough that you forget you’re in a major metropolitan city.
The team was looking for benthic macroinvertebrates – think bottom dwelling bugs that live in the gravel, wood, and other debris in a stream. The team is particularly interested in documenting bugs that live in the riffles of the stream.
“The bugs we want to find are more diverse and plentiful in riffles,” explains Emily Rahlmann, a seasonal Stream Team member. A riffle is important habitat where fast moving water supplies plenty of oxygen that stream bugs to need to survive.
But why care about the little creepy crawlers in a stream?
“Bugs are super good indicators of what is going on in a stream, as well as the whole health of the watershed,” Tristan Hites, another seasonal Stream Team member explains. He’s right. The presence or lack of stream bugs says a lot about the health of a stream, and the larger ecosystem. According to the stream bug monitoring program, “bugs play a crucial role in the stream nutrient cycle. If bug populations are suffering it will affect the whole ecosystem.” That means that without bugs, growing fish have nothing to eat, and without fish, ocean predators have nothing to eat, and so on and so forth in a trophic cascade that is bad for everyone, including us.
The teams work in twos and will sample an area of the stream containing four riffles. One team member will collect bug samples from a riffle using a tool called a Surber sampler while the other team member will take measurements of the stream and outlying area in order to learn more about overall health of the surrounding ecosystem. When they move to a new stream, they alternate responsibilities.
Emily starts with the Surber sampler, a net fixed to a square brass frame that when seated firmly against the streambed allows water to flow into a plastic receptacle at the net’s end. She explains the Surber sampler is handmade by a local company and it is arguably the most valuable tool they have. One worth taking care of. Oh yeah – one crucial step to this process is digging up the riffle with a “weed tool” in order to shake loose the tiny benthic insects hiding in the streambed. Under a one-minute time interval, Emily digs the weed tool vigorously into the riffle and a brown plume of pebbles and fine sediment flow through the Surber into the plastic receptacle.
Downstream, Tristan, who holds a degree in wildlife biology degree, takes measurements of the streambed, using a variety of nifty, low-tech instruments. They work with a calm and collected ease, the movements of professionals who have perfected their craft through repetition. Tristan makes quick use of the stadia rod and measuring tape to document instream features such as riffle depth and stream width.
Dr. Kate Macneale, an Environmental Scientist and the lead of King County’s Stream Bug Monitoring Program, explained how the seasonal work is done with a small team. Out of a large pool of applicants for the seasonal work, team members are chosen for their unique qualifications and ability to perform the important job.
Both Emily and Tristan speak fondly of their team leads. “They’re both very enthusiastic about their bugs – especially Kate,” reflects Emily. “Kate gets very excited when we find big stoneflies.” A stonefly is to a stream what a canary is to a coal mine. Stoneflies are great indicators of stream health because they’re so sensitive to the fine silt and pollution that run off roads and into streams when it rains.
Emily dumps the contents from the riffles she’s sampled into a white rubber tub and begins the process of separating pebbles from the more important things that will be sent to the lab for analysis. Mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly nymphs are good signs. Samples dominated by midges and worms, however, indicate water and habitat conditions are not so good. Tristan and Emily also keep an eye out for New Zealand mud snails in order to document the spread of the invasive species.
So far, no signs of big stoneflies, just a couple of caddisflies. But Emily points to something else blending in among the other pebbles. A vertebrate. A fish. “A sculpin!” Emily pronounces. The tiny fish is no bigger than your thumb. Here, in the middle of a densely populated city lives this unique animal, just like its predecessors have done for eons. Emily gently places it back into the stream, protocol if you catch a live fish.
“Oh yeah, we gotta show you the pebble count,” Tristan says with a smile.
The pebble count is the most charming task of the stream bug monitoring team. Not because it’s fun but because of the way Tristan and Emily deal with the monotony of the task. The Wolman pebble count (to be exact) is a method used to measure the diversity of the stream’s substrate. A team member must pick 100 pebbles at random and measure each pebble’s diameter by pushing it through a size slot in a metal frame called a gravelometer. If the pebble fits you have a measurement. Pebble measurements are documented by the other team member using the slot’s corresponding letter.
“But sometimes the noise of the stream can get in the way,” Tristan explains. “The letter B and D sound similar so it’s easier to come up with names.”
Tristan picks up a rock. “Kathryn.” He picks up another rock, and another. “Judith, Frankie, Judith, Judith, Frankie, Gordon, Horris, Ethel, Kathryn, Astrid, Judith, Kathryn, Lucile, Michael…” And so on and so forth until 100 pebbles are counted.
“Sometimes we use the names of snacks, but get too hungry,” Emily adds.
The last stream the team sampled is squeezed between two residential properties close to Lake Sammamish. It doesn’t scream nature as much as the Coal Creek Natural Area. There aren’t many trees to provide habitat for insects and fish and the banks have been reinforced. Still, there is something special about it. Despite the developing landscape around the stream, a tiny, hidden world of life persists. If you look down at the moving water and squint your eyes you can almost see it. Tristan and Emily get to work: Seat the Surber sampler in the riffle, collect the sample, and take measurements of the stream. One riffle, two riffle, three riffle four. If they’re not here now, maybe the mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly – the tiny indicators of the stream ecosystem—will return. Our future looks better if they do.
In May 2020, the Stream Bug Monitoring Program published a project report that studied how the health of several historically degraded King County streams could be improved by seeding them with a diverse community stream bugs from healthy streams. Read Bug Seeding: A Possible Jump-start to Stream Recovery.
Gavin Tiemeyer is a graduate of The Evergreen State College where he studied environmental communication. He was a communications intern with the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks where he spent time in the field with employees of the Water and Land Resources Division to detail a fraction of the work they do along rivers and streams to ensure clean water and healthy habitat in King County.
On June 16, field scientists from the King County Environmental Laboratory were collecting routine water quality samples aboard the research vessel, SoundGuardian, in the Central Basin of Puget Sound. As they were sampling, they noticed some patchy, brown coloration at the water’s surface at several sites visited that day.
The samples were analyzed and determined to be a dense bloom of a tiny, harmful flagellate known as Heterosigma akashiwo. A regular component of Puget Sound’s phytoplankton community, Heterosigma has the dubious honor of belonging to a group known as Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) species. Heterosigma has been repeatedly associated with fish mortality.
The highest concentration of Heterosigma measured in the last six years reached 2 million cells per liter in the protected waters of Quartermaster Harbor. Last week’s bloom reached numbers as high as 4 million cells per liter. Cell densities of this magnitude are rarely observed in Puget Sound’s main basin. It is the largest Heterosigma bloom King County scientists have observed in the history of the phytoplankton monitoring program in Puget Sound’s Central Basin.
The FlowCAM instrument is an automated imaging microscope used at the King County Environmental Lab to study phytoplankton cells in water samples. (Photo: Lyndsey Swanson)
A common and globally distributed coastal species, Heterosigma often blooms in shallow recesses of Puget Sound’s shoreline, but much less frequently in the mixed waters of its three deeper basins.
Puget Sound is home to many different types of HABs that exhibit a wide range of troublesome effects for people and wildlife. Heterosigma has long been associated with fish kills and while the exact mechanism is not yet clear, there is some evidence that it produces hydrogen peroxide (a reactive oxygen species) which can cause gill damage and lead to anoxia and respiratory failure.
Scientists believe the explosion of Heterosigma cells was enabled by a period of rainy weather that established a stable surface layer of nutrient-rich, low-salinity water where these cells could thrive and reproduce readily. It is extremely unlikely the bloom was related to the West Point Treatment Plant as the bloom is occurring all over central Puget Sound; the plant’s performance has been normal with no overflows; and the effluent quality has been excellent.
A clear relationship between Heterosigma blooms and rising spring temperatures has been documented in field studies, suggesting that as the average global temperature rises, we could see an increase in the frequency of blooms of this toxic flagellate in Puget Sound waters.
Above are microscopic photos of individual particles detected in water samples arranged in a collage by the FlowCam instrument. The golden, oval-shaped particles in this collage are Heterosigma akashiwo collected from the recent bloom. (Photo: Gabriela Hannach)
Since 2008, the King County Environmental Laboratory has monitored the phytoplankton community of the Central Basin of Puget Sound, using microscopy to document the enormous variety of phytoplankton that inhabit these waters.
King County shares data with local agencies to share and inform aqua-culturists and other relevant agencies as an advanced warning, thereby helping to protect local industry from the potentially deleterious effects of this harmful species.
Heterosigma akashiwo is a small, photosynthetic flagellate common to Puget Sound waters. It is best known for its cartwheeling swimming pattern, cornflake-like appearance, and association with fish kills. (Video: Lyndsey Swanson)
Cochlan,W.P., Trainer, V.L. Trick, C.G., Wells, M.L., Eberhart, B.-T. L., Bill, B.D. 2013.Heterosigma akashiwo in the Salish Sea: defining growth and toxicity leading to fish kills. Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Harmful Algae.
Glibert, P.M., Anderson, D.M., Gentien, P., Grane´li, E., Sellner, K.G., 2005. The global, complex phenomena of harmful algal blooms. Oceanography 18 (2), 136–147.
Taylor, F. J. R., Haigh, R. 1993. The Ecology of Fish-Killing Blooms of the Chloromonad Flagellate Heterosigma akashiwo in the Strait of Georgia and Adjacent Waters. In: Smayda, T. J. and Shimizu, Y. (eds.). Toxic Phytoplankton Blooms in the Sea. Elsevier, Amsterdam. 705-771
Horner, R. A. 2002. A Taxonomic Guide To Some Common Phytoplankton. Biopress Limited, Dorset Press, Dorchester, UK. 200.
Steidinger, K.A. & Meave del Castillo, M.E. [Eds.] 2018. Guide to the Identification of Harmful Microalgae in the Gulf of Mexico.(Vols. I-II). St. Petersburg, FL; DiggyPOD, Inc.
Swanson, L.M, & Hannach G.; “Harmful Algal Species in the Central Basin of Puget Sound: Seasonal Bloom Patterns Analyzed Via FlowCAM Technology.” Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference 2020 (Digital poster presentation). King County Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, WA.
Rensel, J.E.J., 2007. Fish kills from the harmful alga Heterosigma akashiwo in Puget Sound: Recent blooms and review.
For years, something unpleasant was lurking in the waters of Lake Geneva – disturbing visitors and residents alike. No, not a mythical sea monster, but a 15-foot boat that sank in the lake and had been abandoned years ago. Kayakers and boaters complained about hitting it in the summer months when the water is lower; that it detracted from the natural beauty of the lake; and it was just plain bad for the lake’s ecological health.
Lake Geneva is located in the suburbs between Auburn and Federal Way, and the shoreline includes a public park, boat launch, woods and private homes. Chris Knutson with King County’s Water and Land Resources Division administers the Lake Geneva Management District, which formed in 2016 to address issues like increased algae blooms, decreased water quality, debris and noxious weeds. In this role, he was tasked with solving the sunken boat problem.
Chris started with the obvious solution – just pull the boat out of the lake. After meeting with staff from King County Roads and surveying the location, Chris thought he might have a plan. But it required a truck with a winch, flaggers on both sides of the street, a flatbed for transporting the boat and possibly an excavator to help pull the boat up the steep slope from the lake to the road and onto the truck. While the plan was feasible, all the heavy equipment and crew time needed to carry it out added up to about $6,000.
Chris felt stuck; the Lake Geneva Advisory Board wanted the boat gone but the cost would be more than 40% of District’s annual budget. So he started looking into other options. He had never considered waterside removal by boat since no one in his department had that equipment or expertise. He reached out to Deputy Chris Bedker from the King County Sheriff’s Office Marine Rescue Dive Unit to ask about the logistics and legal process of derelict boat retrieval and disposal.
In that conversation, a rather elegant solution was proposed: use the boat removal as a training exercise for Marine Unit deputies. On Nov. 10, the Marine Rescue Dive Unit arrived at Lake Geneva, removed the boat, and disposed of it at a landfill – all for a total cost of $28. The cost savings were lauded by the Lake Geneva residents who were able to see their District contributions spent on other important projects like improving water quality and noxious weed control.
There are so many fabulous departments and divisions within King County with expertise in all different areas. Collaborations like this one show how the resources of the County can be combined to solve problems creatively and at the highest possible value for our customers.
At the frontline of King County’s effort to protect and restore salmon habitat is the fish passage field team
The workday for the fish passage field team starts with a carpool ride from King Street Center to the Fauntleroy Ferry Terminal in West Seattle. Today the team has an important job: Locate, map, and assess stream crossings on Vashon Island.
As part of King County’s greater effort to protect and restore the habitat of native fish, the team will inventory and assess roughly 2,500 sites where streams pass under county owned roads and trails. They are looking for barriers that prevent salmon from reaching important habitat upstream.
Evan Lewis, project manager for the fish passage program, explains it best: “One of the best ways to help our salmon runs is to remove barriers that prevent them from reaching quality stream habitats. Just as we count on smooth roads crossing streams to get to where we want to go, salmon need to be able to get past county roads, trails, and other instream structures to reach habitat that’s essential for their growth and reproduction.”
Most of the stream crossings the team will assess are culverts, a type of pipe allowing a stream to flow freely beneath the road. Culverts come in all sizes and can be made of corrugated metal or concrete.
Barriers to fish passage caused by culverts can include water drops from the culvert to the stream that are too high for the fish to clear, a culvert that is too dry to swim through, or a culvert with a slope and a water flow that is too fast.
The field team is Rachel Crawford, Kat Krohn, Liora Llewellyn, and Zach Moore, with project oversight from Andrea Wong. The small size of the crew provides an opportunity to build close bonds. Liora reflects on the process of taking culvert measurements with Kat: “It’s almost as if we don’t have to talk to each other, we just know.”
Assessing the quality of a stream or culvert is physically demanding work that on occasion means cutting back large patches of blackberry while carefully sparing native plants struggling for equal space. This attention to detail requires crew members to be equipped with an in-depth knowledge of local plants and animals.
The unofficial member of the team is the trusty stadia rod, a surverying instrument that when paired with a laser receiver and range finder helps to measure the slope of a culvert. Measurements are entered into a database in real time using a smartphone or tablet which connects to the County’s mapping database. Other crucial equipment includes measuring tape, a flashlight to see into the murky depths of a culvert, and a solid pair of boots, which on occasion need to be dug out of the mud with a shovel.
Sometimes measurements don’t work out as planned because of spotty cell phone reception, or monster blackberry bushes that can’t be tamed in a single visit, and the team must trek back to a culvert site on another day or wait for a more opportune time to take measurements. Still, one-by-one, each culvert is assessed.
Aside from the satisfaction of helping to restore vital salmon habitat integral to the cultural and economic wellbeing of Washington State, work in the field for the fish passage team provides an excellent opportunity to experience nature in a way sometimes lost to adulthood. This nature doesn’t have to be a County owned park but can be the green space just off a busy road.
Trekking down into a ravine with Liora at the edge of the Vashon Island Golf and Country Club, we take special care to avoid spiderwebs and red-headed ants that colonize all surface space.
At the bottom of the ravine a tiny pool forms where the culvert once dumped out a stream. Here, insects called water striders dance across the water until Liora jumps in to take measurements with the stadia rod. At the bottom of the ravine the ground is cool and the air smells like dirt. Soon, hopefully salmon fry will populate this stream and have plenty of bugs to eat.
Later, on the ride back to Seattle Liora reflects on the uniqueness of her position: “One of the reasons I took this job is the ability to explore different places. Each culvert or stream has its own unique culture. Each culvert is its own problem, its own mystery you have to solve.”
At the end of the day the team ensures they haven’t unknowingly transferred any invasive hitchhikers, such as the New Zealand mud snail, a tenacious mollusk with a history of becoming an unwelcome pest in streams throughout the world. In invaded areas the snails rapidly become extremely abundant and deplete food sources for native water insects, an essential food source for baby salmon. Taking special care to eliminate transfer of the snails mud is scraped from equipment and boots are placed in a freezer with enough time to kill the unwanted critters. All in a day’s work for the Fish Passage Team.
Aeronautical engineers, consultants, graphic designers, and Geographic Information System (GIS) professionals formed an unlikely, but unstoppable, team at King County’s Water and Land Resources Division last year. The project team’s short-term goal was to map the stormwater drainage system within parts of unincorporated King County, an assignment that allowed them to test their field skills and environmental passion. To help accomplish this, a team was brought together as part of an ongoing effort to map stormwater drainage system that had not been inventoried, as required by King County’s Phase 1 Municipal Stormwater Permit. Team members were hired for their knowledge of stormwater management and GIS, as well as a love of the environment. Their diverse backgrounds helped them each bring different skills to this project.
“This was a great opportunity to get a foot in the door at King County,” said Anna Lucero, one of the first mappers hired onto the team.
A team of about a dozen people was hired to locate, map, and inspect stormwater structures along nearly 800 of the 1,400 miles of roadways in unincorporated King County. The team started their days dispersing across the county to map and inspect nearly 65,000 stormwater structures and mechanisms, including pipes, ditches, catch basins, manholes, and other drainage features. The team would verify that these structures were not full of debris, cracked, or otherwise deficient, allowing water to continue to move smoothly throughout the stormwater system and help reduce flooding. To give a sense of magnitude of the stormwater infrastructure within King County, King County Roads Division estimates there are more than 5,000,000 linear feet of ditches, more than 25,000 catch basins, and more than 2,000,000 linear feet of pipe.
“The data needed a lot of work,” said Joe Espinosa, the project lead. “(It) hadn’t been updated in more than 15 years.”
A day in the life of the temporary mappers would start with the team strategizing their game plan for the day and making computer updates to the mapping work from the previous days. They would review the updated maps, determine what areas still needed to be mapped or reviewed, and would venture out with a teammate in a truck, traveling to their designated area to spend the day. “Having a partner in the field built great comradery among the team,” said Chris Meder.
Within their designated area, the mapping team would inspect each catch basin, measuring its dimensions, and assess if there were any large cracks or deficiencies in the structure. Using mirrors on sticks, they inspected the pipes coming in and out of each catch basin.
“I put a mirror down into a pipe one day and saw a skunk tail pointing at me,” said Jeff Tarshis. “Needless to say I wrapped up that inspection pretty quickly.”
Culverts were also a common stormwater conveyance structure that the team inspected. A culvert is a pipe or concrete box structure that drains to an open channel, swale, or ditch under a roadway or embankment. It is important that these culverts are not clogged with debris and do not have any breaks in the pipe or structure so water can move smoothly and quickly through the structure, therefore reducing flooding.
“One of my best field memories was when I inspected a culvert and saw two kittens in there,” said Emily Davis. “The kittens did not appear hurt but were quite playful and keen on diverting our attention.”
The team explored the widespread geographical areas of King County, the 13th largest county in the United States, which included summer field work on Vashon Island, winter trips to Enumclaw in the snow, and foggy fall trips to Duvall. Over the course of the short-term project the crew of 16 assessed nearly 27,000 stormwater structures and, of those, more than 5,000 structures were flagged for further investigation.
One surprise on the job was how interesting stormwater is within our environment.
“I came into the job wanting to expand my GIS skills,” says Chris Meder. “I came out stoked about stormwater management.” This short-term project provided the team with a boots-on-the-ground understanding of how rainwater flows through our communities and how extensive the stormwater infrastructure is in King County. The field work provided the mappers with real-world experience in understanding how stormwater pollutes our local waterways — an invaluable lesson since stormwater is the predominant source of pollution threatening the health of Puget Sound.
Getting out of the office and having this field component was a draw for many on the team.
“I love field work,” said Emily Davis. “It was satisfying to go out and get a lot of work done, regardless of weather.” Physically, the project gave the team experience in dealing with challenges of weather because they were out in the field mapping each week, rain or shine.
“I learned to always wear rain pants when it is raining,” said Taylor Rulien, “because just wearing a rain jacket doesn’t always keep you dry in our rainy season.”
This job also helped the team field test their knowledge of water systems in the real world, which requires an engaging mind to appreciate and understand.
“My educational background in engineering and my inquisitive mind for water systems helped me in this job,” said Melissa Dahl.
In addition to field and GIS skills, the project also provided numerous non-technical skills, including how to work together in a team setting, transferring outdoor data collection into online data tools, and building community relation skills.
“The public was so supportive of this project,” said Anna Lucero. “Everyone was very understanding and interested to learn that the rain does not go into the same pipes as their sewage. Everyone cared.”
This stormwater mapping project helps King County save time and money by minimizing emergency responses and road or property damage. Mapping and inventorying these structures provides data to make better decisions on stormwater infrastructure investments for a county of more than two million residents. And, with more knowledge about where the stormwater runoff goes and how it gets there, we can continue to clean up our lakes, rivers, and streams by looking upstream at potential sources of pollution.
Many of the team members were uncertain about applying for the project’s positions because of the short-term nature, but they were all glad they did it.
“I knew it was risky going from a full time consulting job to this, but it was exciting to jump into the unknown,” said Emily Davis. “This short term position pushed us to learn more and not be sedentary in a career.”
“This is the first job I have ever been sad to leave,” said Kasim Salahuddin.
“This job has helped shape my future,” said Melissa Dahl. “King County gave all of us a great opportunity and we are so appreciative.”