Category Archives: Streams

Rainfall drops below average, but deep wells should be fine this year

Rainfall in most of Kitsap County was fairly normal or slightly above average until April, when the spring rains basically stopped. The lack of rain has led to extreme conditions, as anyone can see by looking at the dry vegetation across Western Washington.

Silverdale

The total rainfall has now fallen below normal in most areas of Kitsap County, as shown by the maps on this page. That below-average condition is unlikely to change without some uncharacteristic rainstorms between now and the end of the “water year” on Oct. 1.

The Kitsap Peninsula, like islands throughout Puget Sound, does not rely on snowpack for its water supplies, so a shortage of drinking water is unlikely. The one exception might be residents who rely on private shallow wells, some of which could start to dry up by the end of summer, according to Bob Hunter, manager of Kitsap Public Utility District.

Deeper aquifers used by most major water systems on the peninsula are not affected by a single year’s weather. It takes time for the water to trickle down to the deeper layers, where groundwater levels reflect the pattern of rainfall occurring over several years.

Holly

The soils and topography vary so greatly from one place to another that nobody can say how soon shallow wells will be affected. Some wells depend on springs or surface infiltration, while others tap into aquifers with adequate supply. The rate of withdrawal, including the number of homes in a given area, can have an effect on water supply.

Although the deeper aquifers are not likely to be affected this year, what if we are at the beginning of a dry period that lasts three years or more? I would hate to look back on my current water usage and regret not saving water when I had the chance. To a varying extent, conserving water can protect our water supplies and help the overall ecosystem.

In addition to affecting aquifers, the lack of rain has reduced streamflows in creeks and rivers to below-normal rates throughout the county. The resulting low flows could affect coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater. The fall salmon migration will be mostly affected by whether rains show up to saturate the soils and raise stream levels in September and October.

Hansville

Bob Hunter says the per-capita use of water has been dropping, but he’s not sure how much of the change is a result of personal choices and how much is a result of new kitchen and bathroom fixtures required by plumbing codes. Low-flush toilets and low-flow faucets can really make a difference, he said.

People use large amounts of water on their lawns, so one long-term effort is to reduce the amount of grass and thirsty vegetation that homeowners maintain while improving the soil to increasing its water-holding capacity.

“This year, people are irrigating a lot earlier than they were in the past,” Bob told me. “That has to have an impact, especially if the summer stays dry the whole way.”

The key to protecting future water supplies on the Kitsap Peninsula is for everyone to change their habitats over time by finding ways to use less water. If people understand the trickle-down theory of aquifers, they might be less inclined to take our water for granted.

For more information, see the Kitsap PUD’s webpage on “Groundwater and Aquifers,” including an informative piece from the Environmental Protection Agency called “Build Your Own Aquifer.” The PUD also offers a list of “Frequently Asked Questions.” For details about lawns, see King County’s “Natural Lawn Care.”

Streams in Kitsap County have dropped significantly in their flows (cubic feet per second). ALL GRAPHICS FROM KITSAP PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT
Streams in Kitsap County have dropped significantly in their flows (cubic feet per second).
ALL GRAPHICS FROM KITSAP PUBLIC UTILITY DISTRICT

Water cleanup program will forego grants, reorganize for efficiency

After much success in cleaning up streams in Kitsap County, pollution investigators for the Kitsap Public Health District plan to turn their backs on most state and federal grants and reorganize their approach to local waterways.

I’m talking about the folks who literally wrote the book on pollution identification and correction, or PIC, a strategic approach to tracking down bacterial contamination and eliminating the sources. A 2012 “Protocol Manual” (PDF 10.6 mb) and a 2014 “guidance document” (PDF 4.3 mb) — both developed by Kitsap’s pollution investigators — are now being used by local health departments throughout the state.

Category 1 = meets water-quality standard; Cat. 2 =
Category 1 = meets water-quality standard;
Cat. 2 = reasons for concern; Cat. 3 = lacking data;
Cat. 4A = TMDL plan; Cat. 4B = local plan;
Cat. 5 = “impaired.”

That’s why I was surprised to hear that the health district plans to change course for its pollution-cleanup program this fall — especially the part about reducing reliance on state and federal grants. For many Puget Sound jurisdictions, these grants provide the major sources of funding, if not the only funding for their PIC projects.

Kitsap County is fortunate to have a stormwater fee collected from rural property owners. For single-family homeowners, the fee will be $82 this year. The money goes into the Clean Water Kitsap program, which funds a multitude of clean-water projects — including street-sweeping, improving stormwater systems and restoring natural drainage.

The fee also supports the health district’s ongoing monitoring program, a monthly sampling of more than 50 Kitsap County streams, along with lakes and marine waters. The program has successfully reported improvements in various streams while providing early-warning signs for water-quality problems. The program was started in 1996.

None of that will change, according to Stuart Whitford, supervisor for the health district’s PIC Program. While state and federal grants have been helpful in tracking down pollution problems, most of the major problems have been identified, he said.

“We know what we have, and the patient has been stabilized,” he noted.

The problem with grants is that they require specific performance measures, which must be carefully documented and reported quarterly and in final reports.

“The administrative burden is heavy, and the state grants don’t fully pay for the overhead,” Stuart said. “Looking out into the future, we think state and federal grants will be reduced. We are already seeing that in the Legislature. So we are going to wean ourselves off the grants.”

Future efforts need to focus on identifying failing septic systems and sources of animal waste before they become a serious problem, Stuart told me. The process of doing that is firmly established in local plans. Work will continue, however, on nagging pollution problems that have not been resolved in some streams. And he’s not ruling out applying for grants for specific projects, if the need returns.

To increase efficiency in the ongoing program, health district staff will be reorganized so that each investigator will focus on one or more of the 10 watersheds in the county. In the process, the staff has been cut by one person. The assignments are being made now and will be fully implemented in the fall.

Kitsap's watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.
Kitsap’s watersheds: 2) Burley-Minter; 3) Colvos Passage/Yukon Harbor; 4) Coulter/Rock creeks; 5) Dyes Inlet; 6) Foulweather Bluff/Appletree Cove; 7) Liberty/Miller bays; 8) Port Orchard/Burke Bay; 9) Sinclair Inlet; 10) Tahuya/Union rivers; 11) Upper Hood Canal.

“The stream monitoring will remain the same,” Stuart said. “But each person will be able to do more intensive monitoring in their home watershed.”

Having one investigator responsible for each watershed will allow that person to become even more intimately acquainted with the landscape and the water-quality issues unique to that area. Because of the extensive problems in Sinclair Inlet, two people will be assigned to that drainage area, which includes a good portion of South Kitsap and West Bremerton.

Dave Garland, regional water-quality supervisor for the Department of Ecology, said he, too, was surprised that the Kitsap Public Health District wishes to avoid grants, but he is confident that Stuart Whitford knows what he is doing.

“They are definitely leaders in the state and have been very successful in their approach,” he said. “We wish more health districts and surface water departments would be more like Kitsap. They are improving as they go.”

Garland said Kitsap County officials have done more than anyone to remove streams and waterways from the “impaired waters” list that Ecology compiles. The list — also known as 303(d) under the federal Clean Water Act — is part of Ecology’s “Water Quality Assessment,” now being finalized for submission to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

In 2008, Kitsap County had 69 stream segments listed as “impaired.” As a result of work over six years, now only 7 are proposed for the upcoming list. Many streams were removed when they came under state cleanup plans for Dyes and Sinclair inlets, between Port Orchard and Silverdale, or in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Those state plans identify cleanup efforts to reduce pollution loading and bring the waters into conformance with state water-quality standards. They are called TMDLs, short for total maximum daily loads.

Because the Kitsap County PIC Program has been so successful, Ecology has allowed the local program to substitute for TMDL studies for many streams where stormwater outfalls are not an issue. Under the Clean Water Act, the local program comes under Category 4B (for local planning), as opposed to 4A (the state’s TMDL approach).

“No one has done a more thorough job,” Dave said of Kitsap’s effort. “It is very impressive to see that they have gone to TMDLs or to 4B. That does not mean the waters are clean, but it means they are under a plan.”

Of the remaining seven “impaired” water bodies, some should be removed because of Kitsap’s cleanup plans, Stuart said. They include Anderson Creek and Boyce Creek, which flow into Hood Canal, and Murden Creek on Bainbridge Island, which is undergoing a special study. Phinney Creek in Dyes Inlet is already part of a TMDL, and an area in southern Hood Canal should not be on the list because it meets water-quality standards, he said. Stuart hopes to get those changes made before the list is submitted to EPA this summer.

Currently, nothing is being done with regard to Eagle Harbor or Ravine Creek, two “impaired” water bodies on Bainbridge Island. The health district’s program does not extend to cities, although Bainbridge could contract with the health district for monitoring and cleanup.

Eagle Harbor could become subject to a TMDL study by the Department of Ecology, but it is not currently on the state’s priority list. As a result, work is not likely to begin for at least two years.

EPA clarifies federal jurisdiction over streams and wetlands of the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally completed a new rule that defines which waterways across the country fall under federal jurisdiction for clean-water permits.

The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. Kitsap Sun photo
The new Clean Water Rule is designed to protect important tributaries. // Kitsap Sun photo

Enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act has been stuck in a state of confusion since 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was overreaching by requiring permits for all sorts of waterways beyond the agency’s jurisdiction. For background, check out my Water Ways post from March 25, 2014, in which I describe the court’s interpretation of “waters of the U.S.” — the key phrase in the law.

The EPA requisitioned a scientific report about hydraulic connectivity, concluding that even small streams can affect downstream waters. The final language in the rule, designed to reduce judgment calls by federal regulators, says tributaries would come under federal jurisdiction only if capable of delivering significant pollution downstream. Such tributaries would need to have flowing water or related features — such as a streambed, bank or high-water mark.

The rule has worried farmers, who want to make sure the federal government does not try to regulate ditches designed for irrigation and drainage. Language in the final rule says ditches will not be regulated unless they are shown to be a remnant of a natural stream that has been diverted or altered.

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary for the Army, said the rule represents a “new era” for the Clean Water Act. As she stated in a news release:

“This rule responds to the public’s demand for greater clarity, consistency, and predictability when making jurisdictional determinations. The result will be better public service nationwide.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the rule is grounded in science and law. For downstream waters to be clean, upstream waters also must be clean, she said.

McCarthy said the language was revised significantly since the first proposal, taking into account more than a million public comments and discussions in 400 meetings across the country. As she told reporters in a telephone conference call:

“I think you will see that we have made substantial changes that basically made this rule clearer, crisper and did the job we were supposed to do. And I’m very proud of the work we have done here.”

McCarthy also told the reporters that climate change increases the importance of protecting water resources:

“Impacts from climate change — like more intense droughts, storms, fires and floods, not to mention sea-level rise — affect our water supplies. But healthy streams and wetlands can help protect communities by trapping flood waters, retaining moisture during drought, recharging groundwater supplies, filtering pollution and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.”

The new rule was applauded by many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club. Michael Brune, executive director, issued a statement:

“No longer will the Supreme Court’s confusing decisions on the issue allow dirty fossil fuel companies to threaten people’s health by dumping toxins into our lakes, rivers, and streams.”

Still, plenty of people contend that the EPA and Army Corps have contrived this new rule to continue their over-reach into streams that should be beyond federal jurisdiction. House Speaker John Boehner, R- Ohio, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s release of the new rule, sometimes called “WOTUS” for “waters of the U.S.”

“The administration’s decree to unilaterally expand federal authority is a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs. House members of both parties have joined more than 30 governors and government leaders to reject EPA’s disastrous WOTUS rule. These leaders know firsthand that the rule is being shoved down the throats of hardworking people with no input and places landowners, small businesses, farmers and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

The House has already passed a bill, HB 1732, that would put the brakes on implementation of the new rule and send the EPA back to the drawing board for new language. As you could expect, the vote was mostly along party lines. If the Senate approves the bill, it is likely to be vetoed by the president.

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect 60 days from its publication in the Federal Register. For more details, visit the EPA’s website “Clean Water Rule.”

Rainfall and aquifers keep drought away from the Kitsap Peninsula

UPDATE: April 24, 2015
Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, says in his blog that it is too early to be predicting severe drought in Western Washington this summer because of possible late-spring rains:

“I believe the media and some local politicians have gotten a bit too worried about our ‘drought.’ We have NOT had a precipitation drought at all….we are in a snow drought due to warm temperatures. The situation is unique and I suspect we will weather this summer far better than expected.”

—–

The word seems to be getting around about the record-low snowpack in the mountains, which could create a shortage of drinking water and even lead to problems for salmon swimming upstream. Read about Gov. Jay Inslee’s expanded drought emergency, issued today, as well as the last update from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

CK

Kitsap Peninsula and the islands of Puget Sound are in their own worlds, fairly insulated from what is happening in the higher elevations. In these lower elevations, the key to water supplies is rainfall, not snow, and the outlook for the year is normal so far.

As you can see from the charts on this page (click to enlarge), this year’s rainfall has been tracking closely the long-term average. If the rains are light and steady, much of the water will soak into the ground and recharge the aquifers where most area residents get their water. The aquifer levels tend to rise and fall over multiple years, depending on the rainfall.

Hansville

Casad Dam on the Union River, which supplies a majority of Bremerton’s water, filled in January, well ahead of schedule, said Kathleen Cahall, water resources manager for the city. The dam is scheduled for a normal drawdown, and Kathleen said she does not expect any water shortage.

“We filled the reservoir fairly early this year,” she said. “We are looking pretty good for the summer.”

Holly

October, the first month of the water year, was unusually wet, Kathleen said. December precipitation also was high. The other months were fairly normal for precipitation.

Precipitation in the Puget Sound region is expected to be below average for June, July and August, according to models by the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Interestingly, large portions of the Central and Southwest U.S., Alaska and Florida can expect above-average precipitation. See U.S. map.

precip

Streams on the Kitsap Peninsula are fed by surface water flows and shallow aquifers. At the moment, most of the streamflows are near their historical average. That’s not the case for the larger rivers in the Northwest, which rush out of the mountains. Most are well below their normal flows, as shown by the map with the dots.

Low streamflows usually mean higher temperatures and stress for salmon. Low flows also can affect fish passage in some stretches of the rivers while also reducing spawning areas.

Streamflows

While things look fairly good on the Kitsap Peninsula now, things can change quickly. We have different vulnerabilities than elsewhere. Climate-change models predict that rains will grow more intense in the future without changing annual precipitation very much. That means more of the water will run off the land and less will soak in, potentially reducing aquifer levels over time. Managing those underground water supplies will become more and more critical.

Amusing Monday: Wolves found to catch and eat wild salmon

I’m amused by this looping video, which shows a bear waiting for a fish to appear. In the background, a wolf reaches down nonchalantly, bites into a large salmon and carries it away.

Not long ago, it was widely believed that bears love salmon but that wolves prefer deer, elk, moose and related animals whenever they can find them. Now we know, from careful observations in Alaska, that wolves will go after salmon when they get the opportunity.

Researcher Dave Person of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says wolves will seek out tidally affected streams where they can find salmon passing through shallow water and trapped in pools.

“They’re not as skillful as bears at fishing,” Person told Riley Woodford, reporting for Alaska Fish and Wildlife News. “Each year, they spend over a month in estuary areas, with the pups. It’s right in middle of pink and chum runs, and we watch them eat salmon all the time. There are lots of places they could go; I think they go there for the fish.”

Based on the video, I would have to say that wolves are pretty good at catching fish upstream as well.

Salmon may have gone unnoticed as a staple in the wolves’ diet, because the entire salmon, bones and all, are digested by wolves, leaving no signs of fish in their scat — unlike the bones and fur discovered after they eat a deer or other mammal.

Another Alaskan biologist, Shelly Szepanski, has been studying the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in wolf bones to see whether the bones are made of elements that come from the land or the sea. She found that salmon appeared to make up as much as 20 percent of the diet of wolves living in coastal areas of Southeast Alaska, compared to 10 percent of those living farther inland.

As I continued to look at the video of the bear and wolf fishing for salmon, I wondered if they ever interacted and how things might turn out in a head-to-head fight. I was able to find a video that demonstrates that a bear might get the best of a wolf in a one-on-one battle, but we can never forget that wolves often travel in packs. If you watch to the end, you will see who takes charge of the meal in question.

For another video showing wolves eating salmon, in which a bear plays a minor role, check out this video posted by Tinekemike.

Speaking of fights, I am still amazed at the video below, which shows a leopard swimming across a stretch of water, grabbing onto a crocodile and dragging it back into the water. I never would have guessed that a croc could be defeated in or around water like that — but it looks like he never saw the cat coming until it was too late.

Harper Estuary moving toward restoration, including a new bridge

At Harper Estuary in South Kitsap, the question of “bridge or no bridge?” has become, “How long should the bridge be to protect the ecosystem?”

It’s a story I’ve been covering since 2001, when Harper resident Chuck Hower first told me about an old brick factory that operated in Harper during the early 1900s. He was dismayed by the massive amount of fill dirt later brought in to build roads across what had been a beautiful salt marsh. See Kitsap Sun, Feb. 12, 2001.

Although state and federal agencies were convinced that restoration of the estuary would be a wonderful thing for fish and wildlife, funding proposals came and went until two years ago. That’s when the Legislature decided that the Harper project should receive $4.1 million. The money was from a $142-million settlement with ASARCO related to pollution from company-owned smelters in Tacoma and Everett. More than $8 million was earmarked for environmental restoration. Check out this story, Kitsap Sun, Jan. 14, 2014.

Once the money was approved, the project got rolling. Planners had to decide how much of the fill material could be removed with the available money and what to do with Olympiad Drive, built on an earthen causeway across the upper portion of the estuary.

Biologists generally agreed that the best thing for the ecosystem was to take out Olympiad Drive entirely, although that would force area residents to take an alternate route on Nokomis Road to Southworth Drive. The result would be only one road in and out of the community east of the estuary, and that did not sit well with folks in the area.

Local fire officials were not happy with that arrangement either, according to Kathy Peters, salmon recovery coordinator for Kitsap County. They said it would cut down response time to the neighborhood.

In addition, she said, county engineers determined that the width of Nokomis Road would not meet design standards if the majority of area traffic began using the road. Widening the road would create other complications, such as buying right of way and tearing down some buildings.

“For all these reasons, everyone agreed that we can’t abandon the road,” Kathy told me.

What then resulted was a question of how long to make the bridge. Often, a longer bridge means greater ecosystem integrity. But there’s always the matter of cost.

What then ensued behind the scenes was a lot of haggling among biologists, engineers and other county officials, as well representatives of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Suquamish Tribe. I’ve been hearing about these difficult discussions for months.

Finally, a resolution came when Kitsap County’s new public works director, Andy Nelson, suggested that the county proceed with preliminary design studies, as it would for any bridge, but include ecosystem restoration as a primary design criteria. Nobody could find any reason not to go that way, Kathy said.

The county is now contracting for a consultant to do preliminary design, which will include various options, how much they will cost and how close they can come to a fully functioning natural system.

Meanwhile, WDFW is moving forward with its plans to restore the estuary and get that project under construction. Much of the work will involve removal of fill on both sides of Olympiad Drive and along the shoreline to bring the estuary back to a semblance of what it once was. A boat launch will be relocated.

A few other details, including the biological value of estuaries, can be found in a fact sheet on the county’s Harper Estuary website. Officials are pulling together additional information in preparation for a public meeting April 6 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Colby United Methodist Church.

Community involvement in the project is important, according to Kathy Peters, who wants people to enjoy the waterway and be able to observe as a variety of plants and animals recolonize the estuary.

Removing the fill is expected to unearth a huge number of old bricks, which were dumped into the estuary after the Harper Brick and Tile Factory went out of business in the 1930s.

Jim Heytvelt, who lives near the estuary, said neighbors have been discussing gathering up the bricks and forming them into some kind of monument.

“We have a pretty tight community,” Jim said. “We have neighborhoods on both the east and west sides of the estuary who want to get involved.”

He said most everyone is excited about the restoration, which has been a long time coming.

Running with a boy: Film captures the joy of being around wild waters

American Rivers, an environmental group, has released an inspiring new short film that captures the sense of wonder and adventure people can experience in the wild outdoors.

The video features one little boy named Parker who exudes enthusiasm as he runs, jumps and explores the rivers of the Olympic Peninsula. We listen to fast-paced music as the scenes change quickly, jumping from one place to the next, while Parker demonstrates his “top 50 favorite things about Northwest Rivers.” (Be sure to watch in full-screen.)

“We wanted a video that would connect with people on a fun, personal level, reminding all of us why healthy rivers matter and why rivers make the Northwest such a special place to live,” Amy Kober of American Rivers told me in an email. “Wild rivers are amazing places for kids and adults; they can make us all feel like Parker.”

Amy said she chose filmmaker Skip Armstrong of Wazee Motion Pictures “because of his talent, unique style, and creativity — and his own love of rivers.”

Hayden Peters, left, Parker Arneson and Skip Armstrong review footage shot at the Elwha River delta.
Hayden Peters, left, Parker Arneson and Skip Armstrong review footage shot at the Elwha River delta for the new American Rivers video.

Skip says he got the idea for a simple film about unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity while watching his fiancee’s nephew playing on the beach. When it came time to shoot the American Rivers video, that particular boy was not available. Skip looked around his hometown of Hood River, Ore., and found an equally energetic and curious youngster named Parker Arneson, son of Emmie Purcell and Shane Arneson. This high-powered 8-year-old is an avid snowboarder and skateboarder.

Skip spent three days last summer scouting out locations on the Olympic Peninsula, then came back in the fall with Parker for an eight-day shoot, traveling the Highway 101 loop around the Olympic Peninsula in a counter-clockwise direction. Being a home-schooled student, Parker did not miss any school.

“We just followed Parker around when we got to locations,” Skip said. “He literally did everything else. He’s an amazing person. What struck all of us on the shoot was his ability to engage us and the camera and to come up with ideas. He’s a ton of fun to be around.

Parker gets a ticket for running too fast in Olympic National Park. (It's a joke.)
Parker gets a ticket for running too fast in Olympic National Park. (It’s a joke.)

“We only had one comical setback,” he said. “Hayden Peters and I set off to scout a location and got a bit lost on the way back to the van. It was pouring rain. We finally got to a hillside that looked like the road was above it, so we set off to climb the hill. Only problem was a benign-looking puddle that I stepped in with great confidence, only to sink immediately to my armpits.

“Shortly thereafter, we arrived back at the car, me smelling like a swamp and totally soaked. Parker thought it was pretty funny.”

Parker took some pretty good falls while running around, but he always bounced back and was ready to go again, Skip said.

Parker shows off his speeding ticket.
Parker shows off his speeding ticket.

Parker even got a speeding ticket from an Olympic National Park ranger for running too fast in the Staircase area near the North Fork of the Skokomish River. It was a joke, of course. The ranger was one who accompanied the film crew as part of the permit requirements for shooting video in a wilderness area.

Emmie, Parker’s mom, said he had a great time shooting the video.

Skip has produced numerous films with a water theme. Check out “featured work” on his website, WazeeMotionPictures.com. He says it is important to remember the joy we feel in wild places.

“To me, there is no faster access to unbridled joy than through the eyes of a young person or child,” he wrote me in an email. “It was refreshing for our team to spend so much time with Parker, and it’s cool to see audiences connect with his enthusiasm, too.

“American Rivers works so hard to protect our precious resources, and I love that Parker shows us why this is important. When we were shooting, we met so many wonderful people of all ages enjoying the rivers and sights of the Northwest.”

Skip’s film reminds us that some of our best times can be had outdoors. As the weather improves, I’m inspired and eager to get back to some wild places with my own kids and grandkids.

I also want to thank Skip for sending along the still photos that show Parker and the film crew out and about on the Olympic Peninsula.

The film crew and supporters, from left, Jay Gifford, Skip Armstrong, Emmie Purcell, Hayden Peters and Parker Arneson.
The film crew and supporters, from left, Jay Gifford, Skip Armstrong, Emmie Purcell, Hayden Peters and Parker Arneson.

Climate change disrupts steady streamflows, adds problems for chinook

Climate change appears to be altering the flow characteristics of Puget Sound salmon streams, and the outcome could be an increased risk of extinction for chinook salmon, according to a new study.

I’ve long been interested in how new housing and commercial development brings more impervious surfaces, such as roads, driveways and roofs. The effect is to decrease the amount of water that infiltrates into the ground and to increase surface flows into streams.

Chinook salmon Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Chinook salmon
Photo: Bureau of Land Management

Stormwater experts talk about how streams become “flashy,” as flows rise quickly when it rains then drop back to low levels, because less groundwater is available to filter into the streams.

The new study, reported in the journal “Global Change Biology,” suggests that something similar may be happening with climate change but for somewhat different reasons.

Climate models predict that rains in the Puget Sound region will become more intense, thus causing streams to rise rapidly even in areas where stormwater is not an issue. That seems to be among the recent findings by researchers with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife:

“Over the last half century, river flows included in our analysis have become more variable — particularly in winter — and these changes are a stronger predictor of chinook population growth than changes in average winter flows or climate signals in the marine environment.

“While other impacts to this ecosystem, such as habitat degradation, may be hypothesized as responsible for these trends in flow variation, we found support for increasing flow variation in high-altitude rivers with relatively low human impacts.”

Joseph Anderson of WDFW, an author of the report, told me that chinook salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, may be particularly vulnerable to dramatic changes in streamflows. That’s because spawning chinook tend to show up before winter storms arrive — when the rivers at their lowest levels. The fish are forced to lay their eggs in a portion of the river that will undergo the most forceful flows once the rains begin to fall.

High flows can scour eggs out of the gravel and create serious problems for emerging fry, Joe said. Other factors may come into play, but the researchers found a strong correlation between the sudden variation in streamflows and salmon survival.

In the lower elevations, where development is focused, flow variability could result from both impervious surfaces on the land and more intense rainstorms. Efforts to infiltrate stormwater into the ground will become even more important as changes in climate bring more intense storms.

Stormwater management is an issue I’ve written about for years, including parts of last year’s series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound.” See Kitsap Sun, July 16, 2014. Rain gardens, pervious pavement and infiltration ponds are all part of a growing strategy to increase groundwater while reducing the “flashiness” of streams.

Other strategies involve restoring rivers to a more natural condition by rebuilding side channels and flood plains to divert excess water when streams are running high.

According to the report’s findings, the variability of winter flows has increased for 16 of the 20 rivers studied, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey. The only rivers showing less variability were the Cedar, Duwamish, Upper Skagit and Nisqually.

The effect of this streamflow variability was shown to be a more critical factor for chinook survival and growth than peak, total or average streamflow. Also less of a factor were ocean conditions, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and related ocean temperature.

Eric Ward, of Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead author on the study, said many researchers have focused attention on how higher water temperatures will affect salmon as climate change progresses. High-temperature and drought conditions in California, for example, could damage the organs of salmon, such as their hearts.

Salmon swimming up the Columbia River and its tributaries could encounter dangerously warm waters as they move east into areas growing more arid. Some salmon species are more vulnerable to temperature, while streamflow may be more important for others. Coho salmon, for example, spend their first summer in freshwater, which makes extreme low levels a critical factor.

Eric told me that further studies are looking into how various conditions can affect each stage of a salmon’s life, conditions that vary by species. One goal is to build complex life-cycle models for threatened species, such as chinook and steelhead, to determine their needs under the more extreme conditions we can expect in the future.

Culvert replacement costs loom as a budget problem for lawmakers

While funding for Washington’s “basic education” remains a potential budget-buster, some legislators are beginning to worry about a $2.4-billion financial pitfall involving culverts and salmon streams.

Culverts that block significant habitat are represented by dots on the map. Washington State Department of Transportation
Culverts blocking significant habitat are represented by dots on the map of Western Washington.
Washington State Department of Transportation

In 2013, a federal judge ordered Washington state to replace nearly 1,000 culverts that block or impede fish passage along Western Washington streams. The $2.4-billion cost, as estimated by the Washington State Department of Transportation, amounts to about $310 million per biennium until the deadline of 2030.

Nobody has even begun to figure out how to come up with that much money, although the WSDOT has pretty well spelled out the problem for lawmakers.

In the current two-year budget, the state is spending about $36 million to replace fish-passage barriers, according to Paul Wagner, manager of the department’s Biology Branch. That’s not including work on major highway projects.

WSDOT is asking to shift priorities around in its budget to provide $80 million per biennium for fixing culverts.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee’s 12-year transportation plan calls for increasing revenues to provide money for various improvements throughout the state, including $360 million for culverts spread over the 12-year period.

BEFORE, where a 5-foot round culvert carried Twanoh Falls Creek under Highway 106. Washington Department of Transportation
BEFORE, a 5-foot round culvert carried Twanoh Falls Creek under Highway 106 into Hood Canal.
Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

Even if all that funding comes to pass, the state would only make it about halfway to the goal set by the court when the 2030 deadline passes.

Although funding is a serious matter, the effect of fixing the culverts sooner rather than later could boost salmon habitat and help with salmon recovery, transportation officials acknowledge.

Out of 1,982 fish barriers identified in the state highway system, more than three-quarters are blocking “significant” habitat — defined as more than 200 meters (656 feet). That’s from a fact sheet called “Accelerating Fish Barrier Correction: New Requirements for WSDOT culverts” (PDF 4.6 mb).

AFTER, a 20-foot bottomless culvert allows stream to flow more naturally Washington State Department of Transportation
AFTER, a 20-foot bottomless culvert allows the stream to flow more naturally.
Photo: Washington State Department of Transportation

As of 2013, the agency had completed 282 fish-passage projects, improving access to nearly 1,000 miles of upstream habitat. Another 10 projects were added in 2014.

Because the lawsuit was brought by 21 Western Washington tribes, the court order applies to 989 Western Washington culverts, of which 825 involve significant habitat. The case is related to the Boldt decision (U.S. v Washington), which determined that tribes have a right to take fish, as defined by the treaties, and that the state must not undermine the resource.

The court adopted a design standard for culverts known as the “stream simulation” model, which requires that the culvert or bridge be wider than the stream under most conditions and be sloped like the natural channel.

In an effort to gear up for culvert work, the Department of Transportation established four design teams to prepare plans for 34 fish-passage projects for the next biennium and scope out another 75 projects. State officials hope that by having teams to focus on culverts and bridges, design work will become more efficient. Agencies also are working together to streamline the permitting process.

In Kitsap County, the Highway 3 culvert over Chico Creek presents a real challenge for the department, Paul Wagner told me. Everyone recognizes the importance of Chico Creek, the most productive salmon stream on the Kitsap Peninsula. But replacing the undersized culvert with a new bridge would cost more than $40 million — more than the entire budget for culverts in the current biennium.

A culvert under Kittyhawk Drive was removed last summer next to the Highway 3 culvert. Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall
A culvert on Kittyhawk Drive was removed last summer next to the Highway 3 culvert, which continues to affect the flow of Chico Creek.
Kitsap Sun photo by Larry Steagall

“There are a lot of culverts,” Wagner said, “and our challenge is that those on the state highway system are more complicated and involved.”

Not only are the state highways the largest, he said, but they usually cannot be shut down during construction. State highways typically have more complicated utilities and drainage systems, and work may require buying new right of way.

Those are all issues for Chico Creek, which was rerouted when the highway was built in the 1960s. The stream was directed into a new channel parallel to the highway, crossing under the roadway at a 90-degree angle.

The new design would restore the original channel, crossing under the road at a steep angle that makes for a longer bridge. The new route also could involve changing the interchange at Chico Way.

“That project is definitely one we need to get at,” Wagner said, “but it eats up a lot of the money we need for other projects.”

Removal of a county culvert under Kittyhawk Drive has increased interest in removal of the state highway culvert, which lies immediately upstream of the newly opened channel where the county culvert was removed. See Kitsap Sun (subscription), Aug. 26, 2014.

The Legislature will determine how much money will be allocated to culverts and to some extent which ones get replaced first. New taxes could be part of the equation for the entire transportation budget, a major subject of debate this session.

Five big projects planned for the Skokomish River

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward on a $40-million restoration program along the Skokomish River, as I mentioned in Water Ways last week.

According to Rachel Mesko of the Army Corps of Engineers, two major projects have been dropped from the “tentatively selected plan” for the Skokomish, which flows into the south end of Hood Canal. That leaves five major projects to advance forward for a likely recommendation to Congress.

Skok watershed

Rachel presented a status report on the program during a recent meeting of the Skokomish Watershed Action Team.

It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been writing about the Army Corps of Engineers’ involvement in the Skokomish. So I looked it up. The agency completed a flood analysis in 1988, considered dredging options in 1995 and began work on the current “general investigation” in 2000.

Before I talk about the projects being proposed, I’d like to recall what is at stake in the Skokomish, often cited as the most frequently flooded river in Washington state. Many people believe that the restoration of Hood Canal, a gem of an ecosystem, cannot be successful without first fixing the Skokomish, where individual restoration projects have been underway for years.

Here’s a brief description of the problems from the feasibility report on the Skokomish River Basin Ecosystem Restoration (PDF 5.3 mb).

“High sediment load, reduced flows and encroachment on the floodplain by man-made structures are causing continued degradation of natural ecosystem structures, functions, and processes necessary to support critical fish and wildlife habitat throughout the basin.

“The decline in populations has resulted in the listing of four anadromous fish species under the Endangered Species Act — chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead, and bull trout — that use the river as their primary habitat.

“The impaired ecosystem has adversely affected riverine, wetland, and estuarine habitats that are critical to these and other important fish and wildlife species such as bears, bald eagles and river otters to name a few.”

Let me list some of the specific problems:

  • Historical removal of large woody debris has simplified the stream, wiping out pools, eliminating places for young fish to hide and reducing nutrients, which feed aquatic insects and support an entire food web.
  • Logging along the river has eliminated the supply of large woody debris, the shade to cool the stream and the overhanging vegetation, a key part of the food web. Logging also has increased erosion which prevents new vegetation from taking hold, smothers salmon eggs and fills in pools, where salmon can rest.
  • Levees built to protect farmland from flooding halted the natural movement of the river, known as channel migration, and prevented the formation of new habitats.
  • Logging upstream in the South Fork of the Skokomish River and Vance Creek increased erosion and movement of sediment into the lower river, cutting off fish access to side channels, wetlands and other aquatic habitats.
  • The Cushman Dam Project blocked 25 percent of the mainstem habitat and 18 percent of tributary habitat available for salmon in the North Fork of the Skokomish River. Reduced flows below the dam increased sedimentation in the lower Skokomish. As a result, about a mile of the river dries up about two months each summer, blocking salmon migration.
  • Highways 101 and 106 disrupted natural floodplains that can be used by fish to find food and to escape high flows and then find their way back to the river.

Five projects designed to reduce these problems are being proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers:

Car body levee removal: This levee was built with old cars at the confluence where the North Fork flows into the mainstem of the Skokomish. Some 5,000 feet of the levee would be removed. A small channel would be created to allow water from the mainstem to flow into the North Fork and return at the existing confluence. Large woody debris would help direct water into the channel. Estimated cost: $7.5 million.

Large woody debris: Upstream of the confluence with the North Fork, large woody debris would be installed. Large clusters of trees with root wads, as well as some single trees, would be placed between river mile 9 and 11, as measured from the estuary in Hood Canal. Estimated cost: $3.2 million.

Setback levee at river mile 9: The existing levee would be breached in four locations, and a new levee would be built some 200 to 300 feet farther away. The levee would allow for minor over-topping but would not increase the flood risk. Estimated cost: $2.4 million.

Grange levee: Larger breeches are planned for the levee near the Grange hall at river mile 7.5 to 8, compared to the levee at river mile 9. A new levee, up to 10 feet tall and 2,900 feet long, would be constructed 1,200 feet farther back with no increase in flood risk. Locations are still under discussion. Estimate cost $3.3 million.

Side channel connection near Highway 101: An old remnant channel between river mile 4 and 5.6 would be restored to take water from the mainstem at high flows. Woody debris would help define the inlet and outlet to the channel, which would become a ponded wetland at low flows. Estimated cost: $3.1 million.

The costs above were taken from the feasibility study and do not include design, planning and related costs.

You might note that the River Mile 9 levee and the Grange levee fit the concept of “Floodplains by Design,” an idea supported by The Nature Conservancy and funded by the Washington Legislature with $44 million. Check out the Associated Press story.

After discussions with nearby property owners, two projects were removed from the preliminary list. They involve excavation work on both Hunter and Weaver creeks to restore the tributaries to more nature flows.

Rich Geiger, engineer for Mason Conservation District, said the Skokomish restoration program seems to have wide support among landowners in the Skokomish Valley as well as among interest groups, including the Skokomish Watershed Action Team. As a result, he expects that the project will maintain momentum all the way to Congress.

“It is fairly rare to have a watershed working together,” Rich said at the SWAT meeting. “The ones that are difficult are when you have two parties, one saying ‘yes’ and other saying, ‘Don’t you dare.’

“There is support (for the Skok project) through the Corps chain of command and all the way up to the national level,” he added.

If things go well, a final plan for the Skokomish could be ready by late next summer, according to Rachel Mesko.

By the way, I would like to publicly thank the SWAT for the “certificate of appreciation” I was given for my reporting on Skokomish River through the years. It’s an honor to be associated with this group of men and women who are fully committed to seeing the Skokomish River restored to a healthy ecosystem.