Monday, February 14, 2011

A canoe trip down Joe Leary Slough

Joe Leary Slough is a stream in Skagit County, Washington. Its forked headwaters combine farm field drainages with stormwater discharge from the Burlington Industrial Park, an area that used to be a large wetland complex called the Olympia Marsh. From its headwaters, the stream travels approximately 12 miles westward, eventually reaching the marine waters of Padilla Bay, south of Samish Island.

I’ve wanted to paddle down Joe Leary Slough for months, and I’ve asked lots of people to come with me. Why Joe Leary slough? It is polluted with high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, and it has been on the Washington State 303(d) list (also known as the polluted waters list) since 2004. Of the people I asked to come with me, many were interested, but when I explained the details, everyone said no. Here are some of the details: the slough is likely to be the most polluted water body in Skagit County. There are numerous low bridges and culverts that could block the route. Because of dairies, thousands of cattle, farm chemicals, and who knows what else, the water quality is, well, bad. In fact, in some light conditions, it is orange. And one last thing: I have been advised that some of the people who live along the slough think they own the water, and if we’re spotted, there will be trouble.

I want the Joe Leary Slough to be cleaned up, plain and simple, and I want to see it for myself, and the only way to do this is from the water. Thankfully, it is “navigable water” as defined by the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). Under the CWA law, navigable waters, and their tributaries, as well as interstate waters, intrastate lakes, rivers, and streams which are utilized by interstate travelers for recreational (did I mention I planned to fish?) or other purposes; and intrastate lakes, rivers, and streams from which fish or shellfish are taken and sold in interstate commerce, are all public waters. So happily, you and me and all our friends have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim in navigable waters, as well as enjoy their natural scenic beauty (hmmm, well, maybe not) and enjoy the quality (?) and quantity of water that supports those uses.

Last week, I mentioned my interest in Joe Leary Slough to my friend K, a staff member of our southern counterpart, the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. She was all ears, and to my surprise, she immediately agreed to join me on a canoe trip down the slough. A few days later, we accomplished our mission. We’re both still processing the sights, smells, and many observations of the trip. You will be hearing more about it. If you’re interested in joining a flotilla to further explore this or another polluted public, navigable water, such as the Samish River, Nookachamps Creek, Thomas Creek, Dakota Creek, California Creek, or you have other suggestions, please contact me at

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