Grassroots groups work to save habitat, keep streams cool for Nooksack salmon

Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association volunteers restore habitat to benefit spawning salmon at Terrell Creek. (NSEA photo)

By Kimberly Cauvel

— As local streams get less water from lower snowpacks and grow warmer during hotter summers, some local grassroots organizations are working to reverse or soften the damage to habitat and the fish that rely on colder water.

Among these groups are the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) and the Whatcom Land Trust, both nonprofits.

NSEA is focused on improving salmon habitat, primarily through restoring riparian vegetation — the trees and shrubs along the banks of rivers and streams that keep water cooler by providing shade.

“All the scientists have said, hands-down, riparian restoration is the biggest thing we can do” to help salmon, NSEA Executive Director Rachel Vasak said.

The land trust preserves areas that provide salmon habitat and other benefits to buffer Whatcom County’s natural resources against climate change. In January, the Whatcom Land Trust purchased 1,400 acres of primarily riparian habitat along Skookum Creek, a major tributary to the south fork of the Nooksack River. The trust spent $4.4 million on the property to protect a critical source of cold water.

Jen O’Neal of Natural Systems Design, an environmental science and engineering consultant group that worked with the trust on the project, said in a promotional video that Skookum Creek provides the largest amount of cold water to the South Fork, about 22 percent of the water in the river during hot summer months. It’s also about 2.5 degrees colder, along its eight miles from the Twin Sisters to the Nooksack River, than the river itself.

“We have to protect those last few places that are still contributing cold water at a reasonable amount,” O’Neal said. “Skookum Creek adds a lot.”

Light snowpack lowers water levels, raises temperatures

During 2015, water levels dropped in rivers and streams because the snowpack was so light. This will be typical in future summers as the global climate warms, according to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist.

As stream levels decreased that year, water temperatures rose, prompting the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to restrict fishing, including on the Nooksack River, in order to protect salmon in the warmer waters that are hazardous to fish. The state agency also modified operations at several hatcheries, including Kendall Creek, to protect young fish not yet ready for release.

This year, state agencies prepared for the possibility of similar circumstances, following another winter of lower than normal snowpack and an early declaration of drought for much of the state.

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Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.