Charting a course for streams

People who live near creeks where salmon still run describe the noise of their fall return: a din of slapping fins and smacking bodies, the hard-wired struggle of the fish up their native streambeds before they spawn and die.

For 29 years, Joe Hadlock and his family have been drawn outside by the noise of salmon returning to Great Dane Creek, a small tributary of Little Bear Creek near Maltby. His kids, now grown, put on boots to wade along the muddy banks and watch the fish in their final, shivering dance.

This year, there were no salmon, though Hadlock, who owns property surrounding the stream, isn't assuming the worst.

"They'll be here a year, and then two years will go by and we won't see them. Then they'll be back," Hadlock said.

Still, he said, his concern deepens each time the salmon fail to return. Their passage from Lake Washington includes the increasingly developed residential and commercial land of Woodinville. Runoff of pollution and sediment, and the burying of creeks in culverts to make way for wider roads and bigger parking lots, have destroyed salmon runs in other urban creeks in the Puget Sound basin.

"We know they're resilient, but how resilient?" Hadlock asked.

The question comes at a critical time for Snohomish County.

Over the next year, the cities and the county must revise "critical areas" ordinances to protect streams and wetlands, as part of the implementation of the state Growth Management Act. Local jurisdictions must review their ordinances in light of the best available science.

In Mountlake Terrace, for instance, setbacks — the area developers can't touch — are 25 feet around streams. Ecologists suggest a setback of 150 feet is the minimum needed to preserve or re-create the biological diversity and integrity of a natural stream corridor.

But Mike Shaw, Mountlake Terrace's storm-water manager, said his city is likely to draw the line at 50 feet because it is highly developed. The best way to protect salmon, he said, may be to extend the greatest protections to watersheds that are still relatively undisturbed.

Builders and developers are warning that significantly increasing the setbacks would limit buildable land within urban-growth areas. The result, they say, would be more density to accommodate more people in suburban neighborhoods or increased pressure to expand the county's growth areas.

"Nobody wants density in their neighborhood," said David Troyer of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

A fight is also looming on the Snohomish County Council over how to spend recent increases in residential storm-water-utility fees. In Seattle, for instance, those fees pay for stream-restoration projects, environmental education and projects that demonstrate how low-impact development can significantly reduce toxic runoff into streams. Low-

impact development reduces road widths and eliminates traditional curbs, gutters and sidewalks in favor of lush vegetation and restored soil.

Storm-water-utility fees have been increasing in phases across Snohomish County, and County Councilman Jeff Sax, R-Snohomish, is asking for a vote early next year on his proposal to direct 80 percent of the increase toward infrastructure. That includes culverts, storm-water-detention basins and collection ponds that prevent flooding and keep polluted runoff from washing into streams.

Under Sax's plan, education and habitat-restoration programs would likely get less than they do now.

The increases in storm-water-utility fees will raise about $13 million in the county's urban-growth areas over the next six years, according to council staff members.

"There are some on the council who think spending money on habitat preservation or education is a waste," said County Councilman Dave Gossett, D-Mountlake Terrace. "We need to get the issue settled and decide where the balance is going to be."

Environmentalists and scientists who study streams for a living have an almost-messianic urgency to their speech.

Tom Murdoch, the director of the Adopt-A-Stream Foundation near Mill Creek, said Snohomish County residents need to decide "right now" whether the streams flowing through their communities are going to be suitable for salmon.

Adopt-A-Stream works with property owners and government to fund habitat-restoration and public-education programs. The foundation joined Maltby-area resident Hadlock and the county to rebuild a portion of stream bank along Hadlock's property when a dike between the stream and a pond threatened to collapse and release silt into the stream, potentially destroying spawning beds.

But Murdoch is impatient with the one-project-at-a-time approach to conservation. Last week, he called a meeting of public-works directors and storm-water managers in the county to tell them about a survey the foundation completed this year.

By walking stream corridors along eight county creeks, foundation ecologists found hundreds of barriers to salmon migration, including culverts with high outfalls, earthen dikes and artificial waterfalls. They also found hundreds of pollution sources along the streams they surveyed: McAleer and Lyon creeks in Mountlake Terrace and Lake Forest Park, Swamp Creek near Lynnwood, Big Bear Creek in Redmond, Little Bear Creek in Woodinville, Quilceda and Allen creeks in Marysville, and North Creek from Everett to Mill Creek and Bothell.

Murdoch called on city and county officials to take a regional approach to identifying and solving problems, and he urged them to consider the cumulative effects of development on water quality.

"Local governments tend to look at each new project independently, but it's the cumulative effects that cause habitat degradation and pollution," he said.

Barriers to projects

Shaw, who attended the meeting for Mountlake Terrace, said even when cities want to take on stream projects, they're limited by money and authority.

"We'd like to replace every culvert in McAleer and Lyon (creeks) with an open arch, but it would cost millions," he said. Directing resources to the streams that still have significant salmon runs, he said, would take a regional approach to planning.

"How to make that happen is very unclear," Shaw said.

Lynnwood developer Mike Echelbarger said the public hasn't shown any eagerness to pay more for housing or environmental protections.

"We're really talking about taxes going crazy," he said.

Further limiting buildable lands by increasing stream buffers, he argued, would drive up the cost of housing or force greater density.

"Frankly," he said, "I think that's wrong."

Downstream from Mountlake Terrace, an active group of Lake Forest Park residents has stopped housing developments in wetland areas and received grants for creek-restoration projects.

Along Brookside Creek, a tributary of McAleer Creek, the Lake Forest Park Stewardship Foundation used a $49,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and King County Water Works, along with about 300 volunteer hours, to remove a dam that had blocked salmon migration and reconstruct the streambed.

Now the postcard-pretty stream babbles over trucked-in river rock, artfully placed tree trunks and a hand-carved cedar weir designed to slow the water flow and create pools where salmon might spawn.

But up the steep ravine from the creek is the city of Shoreline. Runoff from streets there floods the wetland during heavy rains and washes sediment down the creek. Upstream in Mountlake Terrace, McAleer Creek runs near the heavily developed interchange of Interstate 5 and 244th Street Southwest, an area the city has designated for growth.

Mamie Bolender, a director of the Lake Forest Park Stewardship Foundation, said her goals include increasing education and cooperative stream-preservation efforts in nearby communities.

"The future of whether these streams ever amount to anything depends on Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds and Brier," Bolender said. "What they do with their creeks determines what happens downstream."

Similar restoration projects are under way across the county: Students and staff at Grace Academy in Marysville worked with Adopt-A-Stream to reroute a channel on Allen Creek to relieve flooding and improve salmon habitat. At Archbishop Murphy High School near Mill Creek, the faculty is planning a schoolwide restoration project on Penney Creek, a tributary of North Creek that runs about a quarter-mile from the school.

A call for big changes

Tom Holz, a Thurston County environmental engineer and a consultant on low-impact development, said small but heartfelt stream-restoration projects are "pretty hopeless" unless immediate steps are taken to protect and restore entire watersheds.

With a passion similar to that of Adopt-A-Stream's Murdoch, Holz said that "another 20 years or less of the same level of development and we will not have salmon runs."

Holz said a half-century of "roof it, pave it, take down all vegetation and direct all runoff into streams" has nearly destroyed the region's urban streams. Without a substantial portion of the watershed's original forest, with its naturally spongy, absorbent soil, storm-water-mitigation efforts such as drainage ponds and retention basins are inadequate to protect streams, he said.

Snohomish County is one of the few jurisdictions in the state that allow low-impact development, although Holz said few projects have attempted such a departure from traditional subdivisions.

County Councilman Gossett said the county is interested in low-impact development that reduces the amount of pavement, but "we're just starting to get there."

Many other jurisdictions, including most of the county's cities, now require curbs, gutters and sidewalks in new developments. Holz said cities require them because residents have asked for streets that feel safer and look more attractive.

But Holz believes that if residents are given a choice — an attractive street that's also environmentally friendly — they may be won over by the new look.

Bolender likes to tell the story of the day the cedar weir on Brookside Creek was set in place. Water pooled behind the notched cedar, and the stream flow slowed over fresh gravel and boulders. At that moment, a giant Pacific salamander made its way upstream, its gummy head lifted, and its bulging eyes took in the changed scene, as if to ask, "What took you so long?"

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or