FEDERAL WAY - Through years of neglect, people have made ecological orphans out of waterways like Hylebos Creek.
Now Puget Sound-area residents are adopting such creeks, and a 10-year-old program called Adopt-A-Stream, already expanding into Eastern Washington, wants to encourage imitators nationwide.
Hylebos is a good example of what has gone wrong, and is going right.
Even a few years ago, healthy runs of chum and coho salmon still ran the gantlet of pollution in Commencement Bay and spawned in Hylebos, an abused and overlooked creek that winds from Fife into Federal Way.
Then its headwaters were paved over for SeaTac Mall, and new subdivisions overwhelmed ponds that had retained storm water.
As a result, one 3-foot-wide drain pipe "dumps as much water into the creek in three hours as used to take three days," said Ted Enticknap, 69, who has watched the watershed deteriorate for more than 40 years.
Salmon runs were decimated repeatedly with silt from construction of a housing development, a sewer line and a road washout. This winter the creek flooded so fast that a pasture next to South 373rd Street filled with stranded, flopping fish.
"There are 62,000 people in Federal Way and most have moved in the last 10 or 15 years," said Roz Glasser of King County's Surface Water Division.
"Storm-water controls have been minimal," Glasser said. "In many areas, discharge levels have tripled. Imagine being a fish in
Hylebos Creek with cobbles coming at you, sediment coming at you, and no place to hide."
A cycle has been broken. The carcasses of salmon used to fertilize the overhanging trees, which in turn housed insects, which in turn fell into the creek to feed newly hatched fish. In many places the trees, bugs and fish are gone.
So last Sunday, about 20 schoolteachers, Scout leaders, environmental activists and others gathered on the bank of the wounded creek to learn how to "adopt" such waifs and nurse them back to health.
Instructors such as Adopt-A-Stream ecologist Kate O'Laughlin showed the would-be parents how to map the creeks, take their temperature, measure their acidity, recognize their plants and do a "bug dance" (a two-footed swivel in gravel to capture and count aquatic insects) to gauge the health of the stream.
"It's real easy to just toss fish in the water," said Tom Murdoch, executive director of the Everett-based foundation, which is hosting a dozen similar workshops around the state and celebrating its 10th anniversary next week. "What is difficult is making sure they have a habitat to come back to."
Murdoch tells volunteer groups who want to do a quick creek cleanup that proper adoption "is a long-term process. I compare it to adopting a child." A stream must be mapped, inventoried and understood, he explained.
Adopt-A-Stream started as a Snohomish County program in 1981 that went private, nonprofit in 1985 and is now drawing national attention.
It has become a training and networking center for more than 100 stream-adoption groups in this state involving several thousand people.
The interest is welcomed by county officials such as Glasser, who said that while government plans are being prepared to help creeks such as Hylebos, the task is overwhelming without volunteer help.
And volunteers are eager for something specific to do.
Meredith Jewett, president of East Lake Washington Audubon, came to Hylebos to learn how to care for streams dumping sediment into Lake Sammamish. "We want to get out there and do things as opposed to just talking about it," she said.
There is no shortage of streams to work on. Snohomish County alone has 3,000 miles of streams, enough to stretch across the United States. King and Pierce counties are believed to have similar numbers of streams, Murdoch said.
"Let's look upon a creek as we look upon a leaf," he told the group. "If you take care of all the stems on a branch, then your main system will be OK."
Science teachers have seized on creek adoption as an ideal laboratory.
"The kids teach the parents, who then teach the politicians," Murdoch said. Jackson Elementary in Everett is credited with establishing salmon in Pigeon Creek for the first time in a quarter century and lobbying the city to spend $1 million on stream improvements.
Industry is signing on, too.
The Pennwalt Corp.'s chemical plant in Tacoma used to have one of the worst reputations for polluting in the state: It paid a $1.1 million fine, and its chairman was forced to fly in from Pennsylvania for a lecture by U.S. District Judge Jack Tanner in 1989 after a disastrous chemical spill.
Since then the company, which was acquired by Atochem, has spent $11 million on pollution improvements, and its employees have adopted the Nashell River near Enumclaw. On Sunday, the former polluter hosted the Adopt-A-Stream training session.
"I think attitudes have changed, and this is an indication," said Fred Wolf, manager of environmental affairs for the Tacoma plant.
While creekside training sessions have limited enrollment, daylong workshops are free and open to large audiences.
The next is Aug. 10 in Port Townsend. For information, call Adopt-A-Stream in Everett at 388-3313.