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.
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.
In the first phase, King County successfully helped move residents out of harm’s way. Single-family homes and a mobile-home park were threatened with chronic flooding, requiring emergency response and evacuations. King County purchased the flood-prone properties, helped residents relocate to homes in safer places, and then removed the unoccupied dwellings, creating a 40-acre open space.
In the second phase of the project the levee was removed, four logjams were constructed, two new channels and backwater habitat were created, and tens of thousands of native plants were installed. The goal was to improve salmon habitat and floodplain functions and diminish long-term maintenance costs along the trail.
Large-scale, multi-objective projects like Rainbow Bend, where old levees are removed or set back, are central to restoring the viability of threatened Puget Sound fall Chinook salmon. At the same time, these projects can reduce flood risks to residents and infrastructure. Following a multi-objective project such as this, effectiveness monitoring is critical to improving the design and outcomes of future projects.
A comprehensive, 10-year monitoring project is underway to determine whether project goals and objectives are being met effectively and efficiently. The monitoring work is focused on changes in the river, large wood, fish habitat, and plant performance. Early results indicate that the project is working well. The channel is migrating again and the river is becoming more complex and suitable for juvenile and adult salmon. The number of juvenile Chinook salmon that can reside in the project site has increased.Adult salmon are spawning at high densities in the largest of the two side channels.
One of the ways King County monitors fish use in project sites is through the use of underwater video. Watching fish underwater allows us to directly observe how they are using their habitat and interacting with each other. In short, it allows us to enter their world and lets them show us what habitats are important.
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.”
On June 12, at the historic Carnation Farms – with it’s expansive views of the lush Snoqualmie Valley for a backdrop – King County Executive Dow Constantine met with the Snoqualmie Fish, Farm and Flood Advisory Committee that has spent more than three years forging the first major agreement in the county to strike a balance between farming interests and salmon recovery.
At the core of the Fish, Farm, Flood agreement is a series of immediate, mid-term, and long-term recommendations for action to address overall Snoqualmie Watershed goals.
“I gave the Fish, Farm and Flood Advisory Committee a difficult assignment: Overcome competing interests to achieve shared goals – and they delivered,” said Executive Constantine. “They produced recommendations that will help us restore salmon habitat, strengthen our agricultural economy, and reduce flood risks.”
Going beyond the decades of acrimony as a result of valuable, but often competing goals, the 14-member Advisory Committee has unanimously endorsed a package of 34 recommendations to address specific watershed goals and actions that will improve the watershed for people, businesses, and fish and wildlife.
Among the top priority actions are achieving less costly and more predictable drainage regulations for farmers, and increasing the pace of salmon recovery efforts in the Snoqualmie Valley. This work includes reexamining drainage and buffer regulations, and developing an agricultural land strategy for the valley.
The collaboration was the result of the King County Council adding a directive in the 2012 King County Comprehensive Plan update to create a watershed planning process for the Snoqualmie Watershed – primarily the lower 30 miles of the valley from Snoqualmie Falls north to the Snohomish County line. This area includes about 14,500 acres of the Snoqualmie Agricultural Production District.
The Advisory Committee has representatives from farming and agriculture, conservation, flooding, and salmon recovery interests, as well as tribal, state and local jurisdictions.
The lengthy timeframe for developing this accord was due in part to the fact that several advisory committee members were busy living with the issues they were addressing, including operating farms, completing habitat restoration work elsewhere in western Washington, responding to flooding, and other important tasks.
While the Committee’s report is the culmination of years of hard work, there is more to be done. Among the committee’s recommendations is creation of three task force groups to carry out follow-up work over the next three years.
On a gray day last month, a small group of King County and King County Flood Control District (Flood District) employees stood on the forested edge of the Tolt River upstream of Carnation.
Geologically speaking, this is a young river – sinuous, fast-moving and largely unconstrained as it courses from its headwaters in the Cascades to its confluence with the wide, slow-moving Snoqualmie River.
Sometimes, the County’s goal is to use engineering tools to manage a river. “Here,” Chase said, “our goal is to get people out of harm’s way.”
The field trip was an opportunity to show Michelle Clark, the Flood District’s executive director, and April Sanders, policy director for Flood District Supervisor Kathy Lambert, proposed changes based on public input to the draft Tolt River Capital Investment Strategy in advance of a meeting with the Flood Control District’s Executive Committee.
The tour – which also included WLRD Director Josh Baldi; Program and Policy Services Supervisor Brian Murray, Project Manager Teresa Lewis, and Communications Manager Leslie Brown, from the Rivers Section – provided a window into the work undertaken on behalf of the Flood District. Michelle, who became the Flood District’s executive director in December, asked several questions of the team, wanting to understand both the rationale and the cost implications behind various actions.
The Tolt is a short but powerful river, flowing some 30 river miles and dropping about 3,000 feet from its headwaters in the Cascade Mountains to the valley floor. Its upper reaches, through steeply forested incisions, are largely inaccessible. The lower six miles wend through a rural, woodsy part of north-central King County, an area with narrow roads and widely spaced homes.
Nearly continuous levees border the last two miles of the river, protecting more densely developed residential areas as the Tolt enters Carnation and flows into the Snoqualmie River.
Flooding has long been an issue along these lower six miles of the Tolt; many residences are at risk during even modest flood events. But also of concern is what is called channel migration, when the river changes course and cuts a new path, heedless, of course, of private property lines. Rivers staff recently completed a 98-page study of the Tolt’s channel migration patterns along its last six miles, a carefully researched analysis that looks at the river’s history, geology, the characteristics of channel migration and those areas where hazards are greatest.
Channel migration can happen slowly as a river moves across its floodplain. It can also occur in the blink of an eye, when, for instance, a geologic or weather event causes a river to suddenly change directions. The Tolt, as the study points out, “exhibits moderate to high lateral channel migration rates.” Avulsions – the sudden movement of a channel – “are a major component” of these migration hazards.
As a result of the Tolt’s dynamic nature, the county and the Flood District over the past decade have purchased several at-risk properties. Since 2007, when the Flood District was formed, 35 at-risk homes have been purchased along the Tolt, all from willing sellers. Forty percent of the funding for those purchases came from sources other than the Flood District. The draft Capital Investment Strategy identifies another 30 properties at risk of flooding and channel migration. County officials plan to hold a public meeting in Carnation on May 8 to discuss its channel migration analysis with neighbors, community leaders and others interested in the river’s hazards.
Back on the Tolt, Teresa noted the important role levees or revetments can play in public safety but added that such tools aren’t effective on rivers as active and energetic as the Tolt.
“For us, on this section of the Tolt upstream of Carnation, helping people out of harm’s way is our most cost-effective strategy,” she said. “This is a river that wants to move around.”
For a quarter of a century, Terry Butler has been observing the way rivers course through King County.
He has seen some, like the Tolt, transform overnight, when an avulsion – the rapid abandonment of a river channel to create a new one – has occurred. He has seen others migrate gradually, moving laterally across a basin over the course of years. He has watched side channels become main channels, witnessed erosion and sedimentation and has seen the dramatic changes a landslide can trigger.
“That’s why my work has been endlessly fascinating,” he said. “Rivers are dynamic. They’re prone to change. And yet people generally live near rivers and construct things near rivers. We’re drawn to rivers. And that can create problems.”
Though his position has changed over the years, Terry is now considered a fluvial geomorphologist – a person who studies the physical processes that shape rivers and streams. And as he retires after 25 years from what is now called the River and Floodplain Management Section in the Water and Land Resources Division, he carries with him a vast knowledge of river processes, public policy and channel migration – a trove of information born of years of research and in-the-field observations.
“The body of work Terry has accomplished is significant,” Jeanne Stypula, supervising engineer in the Rivers Section and Terry’s boss, said. “He has a unique blend of skills. He understands policy, code, technical issues and of course science. He’s done a lot of heavy-lifting over the years.”
Terry is a lanky man with a gentle manner. He’s patient with non-technical people in the section, suggesting books they might read to deepen their understanding of riverine processes. He’s funny, warm and easy-going. He’s also deeply admired in the Rivers Section. At a recognition for him at a recent staff meeting, many people wiped away tears as Jeanne read a poem she had written about him.
Terry was hired as an engineer in 1992 and began working in the Green River Basin. The staff in the section numbered about a dozen, and the section was within what was then called the Department of Public Works. Since then, the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks was created – where the Rivers Section now lives – followed by the King County Flood Control District in 2008. Section staff today number around 50.
Over the course of his years, Terry has helped to shape a new and progressive approach to riverine public policy. He was part of the team that moved the county away from flood control and towards floodplain management – “a paradigm shift,” according to Steve Bleifuhs, the section manager, that recognizes flood-risk reduction doesn’t always translate into controlling a river.
“Terry’s role was to provide the scientific foundation for how channels migrate and how rivers work, which in turn influenced hazard mapping and public policy. It was his work on channel migration zones that influences so much of what we do today,” Steve said.
Much else has changed over the course of Terry’s 25 years, including a technological revolution that has altered the way he and other river scientists work. When Terry started, LiDAR – aerial imagery that uses laser to map river-basin topography – didn’t exist. Nor were GIS – Geographic Information Systems – or, for that matter, high-tech sonar-based river surveys in widespread use. Terry recalls doing river surveys by standing in the middle of a channel with a survey rod while Jeanne stood on the bank taking measurements.
A commitment to science, however, has been a constant. Throughout his 25 years, Terry said, “I’ve tried to bring scientifically based information to people, from decision-makers to property owners. I’ve also stressed the importance of understanding hazard vs. risk. Hazard in and of itself is not the issue. It’s the risk. Sometimes flood risk reduction can meaning getting people out of the way of the hazard, not controlling the hazard.”
What he will miss most about his job, he added, are those interactions when people concerned about a river’s channel migration or some other risk suddenly understood what the science was showing about the situation – those “aha moments” when someone began to see the larger picture.
“It’s deeply satisfying when people get it. For a scientist who works in the public realm, that’s what matters most,” he said.