Using beautiful drone footage and captivating underwater salmon photography, the Snoqualmie Watershed Forum tells the story of diverse partners in the Cherry Valley working together to recover salmon, while protecting farmland and reducing flood risks.
Hear about the challenges and successes from representatives of the Tulalip Tribes, Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Sound Salmon Solutions, Snoqualmie Valley Watershed Improvement District, Wild Fish Conservancy, Snohomish Conservation District, and Drainage District 7.
The Snoqualmie Watershed Forum has been working since 1998 with partners to address salmon recovery, water quality, and flooding. Nowhere is this more evident than in Cherry Valley, where the partners are working to revive the landscape.
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.
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.
The Land Conservation Initiative is the way we can protect the livability, health, and ecological integrity of our region for everyone. Access to nature and open space is the foundation to our collective quality of life. However, development threatens working lands that produce food, jobs, and a rural way of life. The Initiative sets forth the goal of conserving and preserving 65,000 acres of remaining high conservation value lands throughout King County within the next 30 years.
This Initiative is a regional collaboration between King County, cities, business people, farmers, environmental partners, and others that began by creating a strategy to preserve our last, most important natural lands, resource lands and green spaces.
“The main goals of the Initiative are to accelerate investments in land conservation to save money, to ensure critical natural areas and resource lands can be preserved before they are lost to other uses, and to ensure green space for all residents,” said Bob Burns, Deputy Director of King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks. “Prior to the Initiative we estimated it would take 60 to 70 years to protect those 65,000 acres. The goal of the Initiative is to cut that in half. Because land values rise faster than the growth of our revenue streams, accelerating the pace to within 30 years will save an estimated $15 billion.”
The 65,000 acres of land fall within six categories: urban green space, trails, natural lands, river corridors, farmlands, and forests.
How is this initiative funded?
The primary funding source is the Conservation Futures Tax (CFT) fund, which is a property tax that exists on all parcels in the county. The CFT requires a 50 percent match in most cases.
“We work to find match dollars, from other local, state or federal sources, to pair up with the CFT fund,” Bob said. “One way we invest our land conservation dollars is to buy farmland easements on our most valuable agricultural lands. Easements to remove development rights from private lands will preserve farmland and help keep farmland affordable and active, supporting local food production.”
How will it help protect agricultural land and green space in King County?
“Approximately 15,000 acres of the 65,000 acres goal is agricultural land,” Bob said. The Farmland Preservation Program (FPP) is an important component of this Initiative by preserving rapidly diminishing farmland through development rights purchases.
In addition to the 15,000 acres of agricultural land identified in rural areas, the Initiative also plans to protect 2,500 to 3,000 acres of urban green spaces, some of which could be used for community gardens.
“An exciting component of this Initiative is urban green space preservation,” Bob said. “A key goal of the LCI is to ensure there is green space for every resident in King County. We want to make sure every neighborhood has green space. These green spaces will be preserved in ways that focus on resident interests and needs. The communities will drive how these green spaces will be used, whether that is through a community garden, open space, or other passive use.
“Green spaces provide a multitude of benefits for residents, and not all of our communities currently experience these benefits,” he said. “Every resident should have the opportunity to live their best lives, and providing access to open spaces for every neighborhood will help eliminate disparities in the quality of life for residents.”
In addition to addressing open space inequities, preserving farmland and green spaces will support locally grown food, which helps strengthen the local food economy and increase community resilience in the face of climate change.
“Investing in the preservation of farmland and green spaces will strengthen our local economy and promote a more robust local food system, which will benefit us all,” Bob said.
Learn more about the Land Conservation Initiative here.
Growing up in North Africa, I hadn’t had any connection with this delicate fish, although growing up by the Mediterranean Sea, I had a special bond with water, fish and the ecosystem.
There, I witnessed the slow decline in the quality of native fish habitat, and simultaneously the price surge in fish at the market due to a downturn in fisheries.
Moving to the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t know what I was stepping into. I didn’t realize the importance of salmon to this whole region, their cultural significance, and their role in the ecosystem’s balance.
Salmon are not like any other fish I know. Their journey starts in freshwater where they grow up preparing themselves to move gradually downstream to the ocean. After spending between one to six years in the ocean, adult salmon cease to care about food when the time comes to return home to spawn.
Their sole mission is to find their way back in spite of human-made obstacles, predators, habitat degradation, and increasing river temperatures. Each year, adult salmon swim upstream against the currents for miles, migrating back to their birth streams to spawn and die, creating life and sacrificing themselves to nourish the ecosystem. It ends where it starts, and it begins where it ends, a beautiful tale of persistence and dedication.
Their miraculous journey is a wonder that depicts the salmon’s uniqueness and significance. As an immigrant, I stop and ponder their story and can’t help but draw connections between humans and salmon. We are different, yet we are similar in our behaviors.
We humans seek different experiences and environments, and we reminisce about returning home. Yet, we can’t always move freely. Salmon too as humans encounter different obstacles in their migration cycle; our walls are their culverts and dams. Pollution and global warming are impacting their habitat, and intensive urbanization is shrinking the areas where it is suitable to live. Climate refugee status isn’t exclusive to humans. It’s expected that salmon and other species will seek refuge north to escape warmer waters. (See articles linked below.)
If we as a society care about the orca whales that eat salmon, forest health, tribal rights, or simply think salmon is delicious, then we must do our part for salmon recovery. We must make our watershed a place where people and salmon coexist. Simple measures like replacing invasive plants with native ones, allowing fallen trees to remain on the ground and in the stream, using natural landscaping practices, and fixing car leaks are paramount to maintaining a healthy habitat. The Pacific Northwest is facing a tough ecosystem challenge that might doom its fauna and flora. As humans we have created these challenges, but we also have the intelligence and power to make our environment healthier.
My love for this place that I now call home and my esteem for the salmon’s struggle drive me to participate in this effort to restore salmon habitat and preserve the beauty of this place.
About the author
Wadii Boughdir, who was born and raised in Tunisia, is a Communications Intern for the Snoqualmie Watershed Forum’s salmon recovery team. Wadii spent the last year working with the International Rescue Committee in Seattle focusing on improving refugee youth programs and developing outreach and communication initiatives. Prior to his experience in the U.S., Wadii worked on several social and non-profit initiatives in Tunisia and helped create the first debating network there, with the program expanding to Libya. He co-founded an educational non-profit to carry on the civic engagement work and has also worked to promote ecotourism. Currently, Wadii is pursuing a master’s degree in Communication in Communities and Networks at the University of Washington.
On March 29, the crew of SoundGuardian, King County’s marine research vessel, re-deployed a water quality buoy that got loose earlier in the month at Point Williams, off Lincoln Park in West Seattle. In this video, watch Jim Devereaux, Bob Kruger, Houston Flores, and Christopher Barnes from the King County Environmental Laboratory re-anchor the buoy.
The Point Williams buoy is one of four automated, high-frequency data collection systems used by King County in marine waters and is the only floating platform — with the other three attached to piers or docks at Seattle Aquarium and inner and outer Quartermaster Harbor on Vashon-Maury Island. King County began using automated systems back in 2008 but the Point Williams buoy has been at the current location since 2013.
The buoy functions as a platform to suspend multiple instruments into the top of the water column to take measurements that determine water quality in the Central Puget Sound basin. Automated, water quality data collection allows measurements to be taken every 15 minutes of physical, chemical, and biological parameters. The result is improved information to determine variability on a weekly, even daily, basis compared to traditional water quality measurements that are typically measured every two to four weeks.
The data are transmitted via a cellular modem to a cloud data collection service, then transferred to the King County mooring data website where it can be viewed or downloaded within 30 minutes of data collection. Data undergo automatic quality checks to assess for issues in real-time as well as semi-annually by a data manager.
The data are used to characterize Puget Sound water conditions on numerous time scales (e.g., daily, seasonal, annual, inter-annual) and used for status and trends analysis, to compare with data from other locations in Puget Sound to assess spatial differences, populate or validate numerical Puget Sound models, and provide data for management decisions. The data from this water quality monitoring system are also sent to Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems to be included in a larger marine waters data collection network.