Category Archives: Stormwater

Some salmon take the low road to get back home to spawn

“Why did the salmon cross the road?”

OK, I’ll admit that I used this line once in a story many years ago when I first observed the Skokomish River overflowing its banks. I was amazed at the number of chum salmon swimming through farm fields and across pavement in the Skokomish Valley as they tried to get back to their spawning grounds.

Despite extensive work in the Skokomish River estuary, the waters still back up and fish still swim across roads during heavy rains and floods.

I was not the first to bend the old joke to ask, “Why did the salmon cross the road?” And I was definitely not the last, as two new videos went viral the past few days, resulting in news reports across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people must have been surprised to see Puget Sound salmon skittering across the pavement in a most unnatural way.

I even received phone calls from relatives in other parts of the country wanting to know more about this phenomenon. All I can say is that it’s not a good thing to have salmon swimming across fields in an uncertain effort to find their way back to the stream channel. Many of them never make it.

“Salmon are known for jumping up waterfalls to get to their spawning grounds, but crossing a flooded road? That’s a new one,” wrote someone on the Facebook page of CBS Los Angeles. (In the Skokomish, it is not a new thing.)

“Why did the salmon cross the road?” wrote reporter Amir Vera of CNN. “Simple. To have babies, at least according to Alexis Leonard, a fish hatchery specialist who recorded the video of more than a dozen salmon swimming across a flooded US Highway 101 in Shelton, Washington, on Saturday.” Leonard was making the video for her sister, who had never seen the sight. The video and story are posted on CNN online.

The other viral video, which is shown at the top of this page, was featured by Ben Hopper of UPI, who credited Terri Sue Potter for the video.

“Why did the salmon cross the road?” One clever response has been “to get to the other tide,” although we know that adult salmon are actually swimming away from tidal waters.

One of the most impressive videos of fish swimming across a road was made two years ago by videographer Terrence Allison, who captured a low-angle shot on a sunny day. The fish can be seen gathering at the edge of the road, then shooting across one by one. Part 2 of his two-part show can be seen in the second video player on this page. Part 1, which better shows the surrounding area, can be seen on Terrence’s YouTube channel.

Jim Ames, who retired from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2006, was as impressed as anyone with these road-traveling salmon. To him, salmon are an icon of our state, culturally revered by both Native Americans as well as anyone who appreciates nature. Salmon provide a commercial resource, a sporting adventure and a critical food supply for fish and wildlife, including our endangered orcas. Not everyone loves to eat salmon, but for many they are a good-tasting, healthy meal.

“Salmon deserve their special status for all of those reasons, but more than anything because of their indomitable spirit,” Jim wrote for the WDFW website. “Salmon are the embodiment of a willingness to ceaselessly struggle, and ultimately succeed, against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.”

Jim put an optimistic spin on a still photograph of a salmon swimming across a flooded road. “At this point, it is not possible to determine the ultimate outcome of this particular chum salmon’s struggle,” he said. “However, it seems likely that he will make it across the road and continue upstream to spawn.

“The fate of the other fish waiting in the road ditch is even less clear. The longer they wait to attempt the road crossing, the lower the water will drop… If the receding waters leave no alternate passageway upstream, the salmon will not give up… The salmon will continue to fight to find a way upstream until they are successful, or until their energy resources are totally expended and they die. But, they will never quit.”

Salmon migration on display during Saturday’s Kitsap Salmon Tours

Recent rains are bringing chum salmon into numerous streams on the Kitsap Peninsula, according to Jon Oleyar, biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. But more rains are needed to help the salmon reach the upper tributaries and fully seed the system, he added.

Chum salmon swim up Chico Creek on Thursday (11-1). // Photo: Emma Jeffries

“The fall fish are right on schedule,” Jon told me, “but I wish they had more water, especially for the tributaries.”

Folks attending the Kitsap Salmon Tours this Saturday should be able to see fish in most locations on this year’s list. Read on for details.

The fall chum themselves seem larger than average this year, Jon said, which means the streams need a little more water than usual for the fish to easily swim upstream.

Salmon can move quickly upstream and become stranded in too-shallow water after a downpour followed by a dry period, he said. In a worst-case scenario, fish may die before spawning. Once the rains have saturated the soil, the risk of low flows is reduced, but as of today we’re not at that point yet. Heavy rains last Saturday brought many fish into the streams, he added, but streams levels have dropped somewhat since then.

“The fish will go as far as they can,” according to Jon, who conducts stream surveys to measure the strength of the salmon migration. “There will always be a few that try to go farther than the others, and they may run out of water.”

The salmon are running at just the right time for the annual Kitsap Salmon Tours, which have been expanded this year with new locations and more volunteers to explain this wonder of nature and celebrate the arrival of salmon.

Kitsap Salmon Tours will be Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at these locations:

  • Chico Salmon Viewing Park, Chico Way at Golf Club Hill Road: You will find informational booths and experts to help locate and describe the behaviors of the salmon. Wheelchair accessible during Saturday’s event.
  • Chico Creek Mouth, 4270 Kittyhawk Drive: Walk the trail to the delta in this restored stream channel. Talk with experts about salmon and their habitat. (Great Peninsula Conservancy and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
  • Clear Creek Trail/Ridgetop Pavilion, 9228 Ridgetop Blvd.: In addition to talks about salmon. activities include storytime with Silverdale librarian Aleah Jurnecki at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and discussions of “stream bugs” and water-quality studies in Clear Creek. Wheelchair accessible. (Clear Creek Task Force)
  • Cowling Creek, 20325 Miller Bay Road, North Kitsap: Learn about the importance of salmon to the Suquamish people and the need to protect and restore salmon habitat in the region. (Suquamish Tribe and Friends of Miller Bay)
  • Jarstad Park, 4230 W Belfair Valley Road near Gorst: Look for salmon in the restored areas of Gorst Creek; gain insight into the problems of stormwater pollution; attend fly-tying demonstrations; and learn about fish anatomy. (Kitsap Poggie Club)
  • Keta Legacy Foundation Rhododendron Preserve, 2401 Seabeck Highway: Guided tours will take visitors through old-growth trees to the salmon stream. Experts will talk about the life cycle of salmon and their habitats. The 1.5-mile round trip involves going through some rough terrain. After the tour, warm up with refreshments in the historic Kitsap Cabin.
  • Poulsbo Fish Park, 288 NW Lindvig Way: Informational booths as well as arts and crafts and other activities are designed for all ages. Parking is available across from the fish park at Nelson Park or EHL parking lot. A shoreline trail will take you under the Lindvig Bridge to Fish Park. Wheelchair accessible. Information: (360) 779-9898
  • Salmon Haven at Dickerson Creek, Northlake Way and Taylor Road, Bremerton: Restored stream channel at the fork where Dickerson Creek flows into Chico Creek. Site includes a picnic shelter.

For more information about the event, visit the website for Kitsap Salmon Tours.

With rain in the forecast, participants going to this year’s salmon tours should be prepared with raingear and sturdy shoes for walking through damp areas.

Chum salmon in Chico Creek.
Photo: Kitsap Sun file photo

The best bet for seeing salmon on your outing is always Chico Salmon Viewing Park on Chico Way, where Chico Creek meanders through the park. Chico Creek remains the most productive chum salmon stream on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Other good options include Dickerson Creek and Rhododendron Preserve upstream from the park and Kittyhawk Drive (Chico Creek mouth) downstream. A few chum as well as some coho have begun to move up into Jarstad Park near Gorst following a sizable run of Chinook to the nearby salmon-rearing facility.

In general, the peak of the chum run in Chico Creek comes around Thanksgiving, and one can return to the Chico Salmon Viewing Park throughout the fall. Blackjack Creek, which runs through Port Orchard, contains an early run of chum that is a bit late this year, Jon tells me. Gorst Creek and other streams in Sinclair Inlet contain later runs of chum, generally making for good viewing right up until Christmas and sometimes later.

For other locations to view salmon, check out the Kitsap Sun’s salmon-viewing map, which still provides some good information for the Kitsap area. Click on the fish shown on the map for details about a particular site.

Legal settlement could help protect salmon eggs incubating in gravel

Washington Department of Ecology has agreed to take steps to protect wild salmon eggs incubating in gravel by developing entirely new water-quality standards to control fine sediment going into streams.

The new standards, yet to be developed, could ultimately limit silty runoff coming from logging operations, housing construction and other operations that can affect water quality. The idea is maintain adequate oxygen to salmon eggs, thus increasing the rate of survival as well as the health of the young fish.

The legal agreement with Ecology grew out of a lawsuit brought by Northwest Environmental Advocates against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. NWEA claimed that the EPA had failed to consult with natural resource agencies while reviewing changes in state water-quality standards, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

The consultation process — which typically involves the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or both — is designed to make sure that endangered species are not put at risk of extinction by any actions involving the federal government.

The lawsuit covered a host of water-quality standards developed under the federal Clean Water Act and approved by Washington state since 2003. The U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled that water-quality standards adopted more than six years earlier were beyond the statute of limitations, but some standards will now be reviewed through consultation procedures.

The settlement process itself has become a political issue, according to environmental groups, as I will describe in a moment.

The levels of ammonia allowed by Ecology in both freshwater and seawater must go through a formal review under ESA within three years, as spelled out in the settlement agreement. Ammonia is a constituent of sewage effluent, livestock operations and some industrial processes. In high enough levels, it can be toxic to fish.

Melissa Gildersleeve, a manager in Ecology’s Water Quality Program, said she believes the state’s current standards for ammonia are adequate to protect salmon and should be confirmed through the upcoming review process — although NWEA contends that the standards are out of date and should be revised.

Gildersleeve said water-quality criteria for fine-sediment is something that Ecology has wanted to adopt, but experts are finding it difficult to develop a measurable standard that ensures that salmon eggs are getting adequate oxygen.

“We have spent a number of years working on this issue, and we realize that there are challenges to monitor it,” she said. “It was on our to-do list. Now we are trying to figure out how to do that and then go through a formal rule-making process and get comments.”

Under the settlement, Ecology has three years to announce a formal proposal and another year to adopt the new standard for fine sediments. The state’s turbidity standards for streams, which touches on the issue of sediment, will remain in place after adoption of new standards addressing adequate oxygen for salmon eggs.

Another issue in the settlement is how the EPA should deal with “natural conditions” — such as stream temperature — that do not allow salmon or other species to thrive. For example, studies may reveal that a portion of a stream can never meet the approved temperature criteria — even if the stream were to be restored to a pristine condition. A judge in Oregon has ruled that any exemption from the normal criteria because of “natural conditions” is effectively a new water-quality standard.

The EPA agreed to review the process in both Washington and Oregon to determine what steps should be taken when states propose an exemption based on natural conditions. One option would cause an exemption to trigger a biological review and public comments to make sure that the exemption is justified.

The settlement, approved yesterday by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in Seattle, could have been completed much sooner were it not for a constraining policy issued by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, according to Allison LaPlante, attorney for NWEA. She noted that this was the first settlement in the country to make it through the EPA’S cumbersome review process.

The new policy was issued about a year ago, when Pruitt said it would ensure due process as opposed to a “sue-and-settle” approach. Among other things, it requires publication of any proposed legal settlement along with an extended public comment period.

“The Pruitt policy added more than a year to this settlement process and only resulted in six public comments, all of which supported protecting salmon,” LaPlante said in a news release. “It’s proven to be yet another excuse for agency delays in complying with the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act at a time when we can ill afford it, given the dwindling populations of wild salmon and of the orca whales that depend upon salmon.”

Editorial writer Carl Segerstrom discusses the ongoing Pruitt Policy in High Country News.

Nina Bell, executive director of NWEA, has been outspoken about what she considers a failure of environmental agencies to aggressively protect the environment.

“The result of our lawsuit forces EPA and Ecology to take actions to protect threatened and endangered salmon that these agencies should have taken many years ago,” she said in a news release. “For all of the lip service paid by the agencies to saving salmon, they are consistently short on taking any real actions.

“When species are struggling to survive,” she added, “agencies should not be dragging their feet to do what the law requires.”

Ongoing lack of rainfall raises concerns for chum, coho salmon

We’ve just gone through one of the driest five-month periods on record in Kitsap County, yet the total precipitation for entire water year was fairly close to average.

Water year 2018, which ended Sunday, offers a superb example of the extreme differences in precipitation from one part of the Kitsap Peninsula to another:

  • In Hansville — at the north end of the peninsula — the total rainfall for the year reached 35.2 inches, about 3.5 inches above average.
  • In Silverdale — about midway from north to south — the total rainfall was recorded as 43.1 inches, about 5 inches below average.
  • In Holly — near the south end — the total rainfall came in at 82 inches, about 3.3 inches above average.

The graphs of precipitation for the three areas show how this year’s rainfall tracked with the average rainfall through the entire year. The orange line depicts accumulated rainfall for water year 2018, while the pink line represents the average. Click on the images to enlarge and get a better view.

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Puget Sound Action Agenda makes a shift in restoration strategy

Puget Sound Partnership has honed its high-level game plan for restoring the Puget Sound ecosystem, including a sharp focus on 10 “vital signs” of ecological health.

The newly released draft of the Puget Sound Action Agenda has endorsed more than 600 specific “near-term actions” designed to benefit the ecosystem in various ways. Comments on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 15. Visit the Partnership’s webpage to view the Draft Action Agenda and access the comments page.

The latest Action Agenda for 2018-2022 includes a revised format with a “comprehensive plan” separate from an “implementation plan.” The comprehensive plan outlines the ecological problems, overall goals and administrative framework. The implementation plan describes how priorities are established and spells out what could be accomplished through each proposed action.

Nearly 300 near-term actions are listed at Tier 4, the highest level of priority, giving them a leg up when it comes to state and federal support, according to Heather Saunders Benson, Action Agenda manager. Funding organizations use the Action Agenda to help them determine where to spend their money.

The greatest change in the latest Action Agenda may be its focus on projects that specifically carry out “Implementation Strategies,” which I’ve been writing about on and off for nearly two years. Check out “Implementation Strategies will target Puget Sound ‘Vital Signs’” in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Less boater pollution allows more shellfish harvesting near marinas

State health officials have reduced shellfish-closure areas around 20 marinas in Puget Sound, allowing more commercial shellfish harvesting while inching toward a goal of upgrading 10,800 acres of shellfish beds by 2020.

In all, 661 acres of shellfish beds were removed from a long-standing “prohibited” classification that has been applied around marinas, based on assumptions about the dumping of sewage from boats confined to small areas.

Poulsbo Marina // Photo: Nick Hoke via Wikimedia

“We have seen pretty significant changes in boat-waste management,” said Scott Berbells, shellfish growing area manager for the Washington Department of Health, explaining how the upgrades came about.

New calculations of discharges from boats in marinas and the resulting risks of eating nearby shellfish have allowed health authorities to reduce, but not eliminate, the closure zones around the marinas.

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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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Manchester plant continues to excel in sewage treatment

The Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant has done it again, earning a perfect performance award for compliance with its state water-quality permit.

The Manchester plant, operated by Kitsap County, remains ahead of the pack, being the only sewage-treatment plant in Washington state with a perfect score since the Department of Ecology launched its Outstanding Performance Awards program in 1995. That’s 23 years.

Port Townsend Wastewater Treatment Plant has maintained perfect performance for 20 years, and six plants have reached that level for 10 consecutive years. For this year alone, 111 treatment plants achieved perfect scores — about a third of all the plants in the state.

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Amusing Monday: Value of water featured in art contest for students

More than 1,300 students entered this year’s Water Resources Art and Poetry Contest, sponsored by New York City’s water utility, known as the Department of Environmental Protection. Some 60 winners were named as “Water Champions” by a panel of judges.

Art by Lily H., grades 6–7.
Photo: New York City DEQ Art and Poetry Contest

“For more than three decades, DEP’s annual Art and Poetry Contest has given young New Yorkers a wonderful opportunity to use their artistic abilities to learn about and express the importance of protecting our environment and water resources,” DEP Commissioner Vincent Sapienza said in a press release announcing the contest winners. “Nearly half the State of New York relies on the city’s water supply system, so this is a terrific way for students in both New York City and beyond to celebrate our shared natural resources.”

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U.S. Supreme Court justices raise questions about culvert damage

As state and tribal attorneys faced off yesterday in the 20-year battle over culverts, justices for the U.S. Supreme Court drilled both sides about numbers.

A coho salmon tries to leap into a culvert on Gorst Creek where water discharges from fish-rearing ponds. // Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

The culvert case is not about the 50-50 sharing of the annual salmon harvest. The courts ruled years ago that treaties with Puget Sound tribes guarantee Indians half the total salmon harvest, to be shared equally with non-Indians.

The culvert case is about the environment, specifically the idea that culverts are capable of blocking the passage of salmon, reducing the salmon population to a meaningless number and making the treaty right worthless.

From the transcript of today’s Supreme Court hearing, I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting and legally relevant questions.

Opening the hearing and speaking for the state, Assistant Attorney General Noah Purcell said the lower courts have essentially established a new treaty right with the ruling under appeal. If culverts must be replaced as a result of the treaty, then consider what could happen to dams and virtually any development that has ever had an impact on salmon runs, he said.

In legal briefs, state attorneys have argued that the treaties work both ways, that tribes gave up the right to manage the lands they ceded to the U.S.

Justice Samuel Alito noted that the treaty describes the right of Indians to take fish. “What do you think that means?” he asked Purcell.

Three rights come from that language, Purcell said. They are the right to fish in historical places, the right to a fair share of the available fish and a “right to be free of certain types of state actions that are not justified by substantial public interest.”

The tribes, he added, need to show that state culverts specifically are responsible for a “large decline” on a particular river. There are many other causes of salmon declines as well, and the state is trying to work on all of them, he said.

Alito said he doesn’t understand the meaning of “large decline” or even “substantial decline,” the term used by the federal government, which is a party to the case on behalf of the tribes.

“Well,” Percell said, “it has to be more than a fraction of 1 percent of historic harvests or 5 percent of recent harvest. We think, for example, certainly a decline of half the salmon would certainly easily qualify …”

Asked Justice Elena Kagan, “I mean, do you have a number in your head?”

Justice Neil Gorsuch wanted to know whether a 5-percent reduction in the salmon runs would be adequate to support the tribes’ position. “If they could show that 5 percent is attributable to the culverts, would that suffice to satisfy you?” he asked. “And, if not, I guess I’m where Justice Kagan is. What’s your number.”

Purcell said he thought that half would obviously quality but not 5 percent.

“Suppose,” said Alito, “that there were more than salmon than anybody knew what to do with, and then the state did something that caused a decline. Would that be a violation of the treaty?”

“I don’t think that would be a violation even under the respondents’ (tribes’) theory, Your Honor,” Purcell replied. “… and that recognizes the crucial other piece of language… The treaties ceded control of the off-reservation land to future government to regulate in the public interest. And so the government has to have the ability to make some types of decisions, even if they affect the treaty fishing right when there are substantial interests involved.”

Gorsuch said he is struggling with that concept, the idea that state government could pursue other public interests and balance them against treaty rights.

“The point of a treaty, I would have thought, would have been to freeze in time certain rights and to ensure their existence in perpetuity, regardless of what other social benefits a later municipality might be able to claim,” he said.

Purcell said the treaty must recognize interests other than the fishing rights of the tribes, and that includes actions to protect natural resources and public health.

“But where does this public interest theory come in in the treaty?” asked Kagan. “I thought this was an agreement. I give you my land. You give me the right to take fish. And — let’s make it narrower here — I have the right that you will not put up obstructions on these streams such that I can’t take fish.”

“Well, Your Honor,” said Purcell, “if the rule is narrowly limited like that, it’s much less problematic for the state, but the findings would not support that rule and it would outlaw every dam in the Northwest. So it’s inconsistent with the parties’ long-standing behavior.”

Alito asked federal prosecutors in the case whether federal dams also violate the treaties.

Assistant Solicitor General Allon Kedem of the U.S. Department of Justice said that issue was never part of the case and the legal issues have never been developed. Still, he added, many dams are built with fish ladders. In other cases, the U.S. government has compensated the tribes monetarily.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg returned to the original language of the treaties, which “gives the tribes the right to take fish in common with all citizens.” One could simply interpret that to mean that nobody should discriminate against Indians, she said.

Kedem said the state had argued that point years ago, but the courts considered representations made by federal officials to the Indians when the treaties were signed. The conclusion, upheld by the Supreme Court, was that the tribes have access to fish in perpetuity.

Justice Kagan returned to the issue of numbers, asking Kedem if he has an idea how much habitat damage constitutes “substantial” degradation — the term used to define a treaty violation.

“So we don’t have a number,” Kedem said, adding that the lower courts used a habitat approach, the idea that loss of habitat would reduce the salmon population.

Later, Justice Alito turned to Attorney William Jay, representing the tribes.

“I hate to keep asking the same question,” he said, but does ‘substantial degradation’ mean a number or “significant degradation’ mean a number?”

“I don’t think it means a hard and fast number,” Jay said. “I think it is something that you would look at in context, in context of the particular species, in context of the strength of the species at a particular time.”

Without giving a number, Jay said, the court found that the state’s culverts are so numerous and reduce access to such a large spawning area that the impact on the fishery is significant.

“I just don’t see how that can mean anything other than a number,” Alito said, “and I still haven’t gotten an answer that seems to give any substance to this.”

Jay said the idea that the local, state or federal government could disregard the intent of the treaty while balancing their own perceived public interests is not consistent with promises made by the president of the United States and ratified by the Senate.

“If the promise made by the United States in exchange for millions of acres of the tribes’ land means anything … it protects against a threat to the fishery like these, a threat that obstructs fish from getting to the usual and accustomed fishing grounds where the tribes have a right to fish.”

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