Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Collaborative Canoeing. East Fork Nookachamps Creek + Lower Skagit. Early February.

By Matt Schwartz, Baykeeper Intern

The fog hangs heavy as the canoes slide one by one down the bank, over the sticker bushes, under the bridge, over the rocks and into the water.  We hope we look as swift and sprightly as East Fork Nookachamps Creek does this morning.
Members of the North Sound Baykeeper Team, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a representative of the Swinomish Tribe, and RE Sources volunteers quickly populate five canoes and slip downstream away from the launch point.  The East Fork Nookachamps proves to be as nimble as she appears.  Overhanging brush, blackberry bushes, sweepers, strainers, bouncing betty's and a host of other moving water features have us dancing, whooping and occasionally swimming around the sudden turns.  The stream is pumping at a fairly high water level today and we are on our toes.  Actually, we are on our knees, in order to lower our center of gravity in the canoe.  Anyhow, there’s lots to observe and miles to go.

Many reaches of  Nookachamps Creek are listed on Washington State’s Water Quality Assessment List, known as the 303(d) list, as required by the Clean Water Act.   This list categorizes waterways for which beneficial uses– such as drinking, recreation, aquatic habitat, and industrial use – with a number from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most polluted.  Well, that makes the hot shower after paddling in fecal coliform all day feel that much better.  The East Fork Nookachamps is listed as category 5 on the 303(d) list for low dissolved oxygen.  This means that the oxygen is being consumed by bacteria to decompose organic material, and may not sustain healthy fish populations.  Streams with low dissolved oxygen not only make life difficult for fish, but can create dead zones.  In addition, high temperature levels “due to human actions” earn the East Fork ratings of “polluted” and “water of concern”.  Its levels of fecal coliform, likely due to livestock manure, earn it more official “polluted” gold stars.  The East Fork Nookachamps is a classic example of many of Washington’s waterways under high stress.

The fog lifts and our group of canoeists squint into the sun and continue downstream.  Several reasons for the ‘polluted’ status become evident.  Many of the banks are bare of riparian vegetation - trees and shrubs have been removed for pasture, crop fields and timber harvest.  Historic forests have been converted to pastures that are grazed right up to the bank of the stream - the fences are actually in the stream in one spot.  We can see that some farmers allow their livestock to actually get into the water to drink, eroding the banks and dropping manure right into the water.  The water is brown,  and sediment is evident.  It appears that in some areas, logs have been removed from the stream, and some  reaches have been physically straightened.  This is bad news for migrating salmon, who greatly benefit from resting areas afforded by log jams and wood structure.

But there’s good news, too: some areas of the creek have high quality side channel rearing habitat, which is essential for juvenile salmonids, which will soon be starting to emerge from eggs.  A few areas have wide buffers full of mature trees.  If allowed to fall into the water these trees create jams and essential hiding and resting places for migrating salmon.  Some areas of the creek have complex wood structure (making canoeing challenging!) and other areas appear to have had the wood removed.  In several areas new riparian plantings are evident, some in narrow strips along the creek, and others in wider areas.
From our viewpoint, some reasonable remedies seem clear:  livestock should be kept out of the water, muddy manure should be kept away from any areas that would drain to the stream, wood structure should remain whenever possible, and wider riparian would be a great start.  It might not save the East Fork Nookachamps from the 303(d) status but these remedies might make a positive change.   

Alas, the fogs lifts and the skies become blue and spirits are high as we cruise underneath a nesting pair of bald eagles.  Several immature baldies who haven’t yet grown into their white heads and tail feathers, scout the creek for a fishy lunch from a towering cottonwood tree.   We make the group decision to finish off the East Fork and soundlessly float into the much colder and voluminous Skagit River.  Only two rivers on the west coast are bigger than the Skagit.  It is famous for providing key spawning habitat for salmon- it is one of our last remaining river systems that contain healthy populations of all five native salmon species.  The Skagit also supports the largest wintering population of bald eagles in the continental United States.  However, despite its designation in 1978 as a Wild and Scenic River System, habitat degradation, overharvest and rapid development along the Puget Sound have led to a massive decline in its salmon.

We paddle out into the middle of the Skagit River - it feels huge and lazy after the hairpin turns that kept us awake and alert all morning.  We eventually haul out on river right and call it a day.  Time to wash off the fecal coliform and chart the course for the next voyage.

For more info:  Puget SoundKeeper Alliance plans to paddle one river in peril for every month of 2013.  Find out more:

Source: Dept. of Ecology.  Water Quality Assessment  for Washington. 

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