February 17, 2022
Floods, fish and farming intersect in Nooksack Basin’s complex challenge
Clifford Heberden

With climate change bringing limited snowpack, receding glaciers and magnified atmospheric rivers, the issues around management of streamflow and water supply in the Nooksack Basin are intensifying; south of Kendall in February, the river winds calmly around shifting gravel banks and vegetation swept downstream. (Salish Current photo ©)

February 17, 2022
Floods, fish and farming intersect in Nooksack Basin’s complex challenge
Clifford Heberden

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As Whatcom County works to prepare for the next major flooding events and to foster community resilience, a discussion on long-term solutions and ways to promote salmon population and environmental preservation is taking shape.

The Nooksack River is central to Whatcom County’s functioning. It provides habitat for native salmon species and water for residents, farms and industries.

The Nooksack can also be the source of destruction and displacement for thousands when it floods.

After major flooding in November 2021, calls have increased for dredging the river bed or channeling its banks to reduce the spillover into farms and communities. The layers of silt clogging homes and fields after the waters receded make a visual case for dredging. 

But for a complex, sediment-heavy river like the Nooksack, these seemingly simple solutions could prove to be expensive and inadequate for long-term perspectives.

“There’s a whole lot of planning that needs to be happening,” said state representative Sharon Shewmake [D-42], who represents communities in the Nooksack Valley. “The Nooksack River is one of the most complicated rivers around.”

Speak up for Mother Nature

Darrell Hillaire, executive director of Children of the Setting Sun Productions, an organization that focuses on storytelling and the conservation of Native American culture and interests, and a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, said there needs to be more consideration for the environment.

“We have to understand that the river is talking to us all the time,” Hillaire said. “A lot of people are listening but it is our responsibility to speak up in the places the river needs a voice, salmon need a voice, the forest needs a voice, orcas; it’s our responsibility to speak up for them.”

Hillaire said the conversation needs to be based more on the relationship between the environment and its people, using this opportunity to give back to nature as opposed to the history of taking in the region.

“That’s just been the case for the last couple hundred years here in this country,” Hillaire said. “Now we’re seeing the consequences of that, everything is flooding because of so much deforestation and so much construction around the watershed itself.”

Mitigating consequences

Shewmake said there needs to be a long-term solution that can strengthen community and environmental resilience as the ecosystem experiences the consequences of climate change.

“You can’t stop a flood from happening but we need to better protect people, we need to better protect their homes and we need to figure out how to do that using science and protecting the environment,” she said.

Figuring out how to balance riparian habitat restoration that benefits fish such as chinook salmon with flood mitigation measures is one of the challenges facing the Nooksack River ecosystem. (Photo by Roger Tabor, USFWS-Pacific Region, via Flickr)

Mark Personius, director of Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said that the flooding issue is a complex problem which climate change is making worse. Warming temperatures result in more precipitation falling as rain (rather than snow) in the higher elevations of the watershed in winter,” Personius said. “That produces not only more erosion at higher elevations (further contributing to increased sediment loads) but also increases the amount of runoff for the river to accommodate.”

Personius said engineered options could include strategic levee management, such as increasing levee heights in some areas and providing levee setbacks in others to increase flow capacity, or high-flow bypass channels and dikes or berms around especially vulnerable areas. These suggestions are echoed by residents and farmers in the flood zones. 

Other site-specific responses include voluntary buyouts of flood-prone properties and providing assistance to raise structures above anticipated base flood levels, measures that can be and have been provided by FEMA before. Directing future growth away from flood hazard areas could be another part of the solution, Personius said. 

Compatible solutions

Many flooding responses that protect people and property, at least in the short term, are harmful to salmon and other river inhabitants. That damage in turn has economic and social impacts for other county residents. Planners are looking for solutions that don’t pit one constituency against another. 

“There are both policy as well as engineering flood mitigation strategies that may also be compatible with maintaining or even improving salmon habitat conditions,” Personius said.

Whatcom Land Trust, a nonprofit conservancy organization, has been doing this long-term work by purchasing land along the upstream part of the river where the tribes, the county and the Department of Natural Resources have been focusing on salmon restoration. 

“We’re looking for areas that have not been developed yet,” said Gabe Epperson, the WLT’s executive director. “It’s a more effective strategy to try to acquire those properties or acquire conservation easements on them so they don’t get developed. It’s more proactive.” The trust has been actively managing these properties by restoring wetlands, planting trees and facilitating log jams.

In already populated areas, the trust is working with the farming community and is advocating for mixed management along the rivers banks. 

“We want to facilitate farming, floodplains protection, wetland restoration and salmon habitat,” Epperson said. “We can do all of these things.” 

The Catalyst

Epperson points to a property in Acme called the Catalyst Complex. The land was almost entirely farmed and had been completely leveled and drained for years. The trust set aside a portion of the property suitable for farming upland, leasing it to a local dairy farm, and have been doing restoration work on the rest. 

An aerial view of the Catalyst Complex shows the 25 acres of land leased to farming, near the creeks Whatcom Land Trust restored and re-meandered. (Photo courtesy Gabe Epperson, Whatcom Land Trust)

“We daylighted and re-meandered creeks that had been previously straightened and have done wetland restoration and tree planting. It has a flourishing wetland now and this young forest that’s growing up,” Epperson said. “That’s really our goal, to try to manage properties for multiple objectives: a riparian zone, prioritizing that habitat and having farming upland.”

Epperson said there should be a long-term strategy within the floodplain to acquire properties, remove infrastructure and facilitate natural buffers that can absorb flooding and achieve environmental goals in the basin.

“That’s the strategy we emphasize and what we’re choosing to do on our properties,” Epperson said. “This has been our approach all along and we’ve been doing this for the last 30 years.”

He said the major flooding in November underscored the work WLT has been doing. While their properties were in the flood areas, they were not negatively impacted because the Trust had been removing infrastructure from the floodplain, putting habitat and trees in those areas.

“We feel like it reinforced what we’re doing,” Epperson said. “We’re seeing the result first-hand on our properties.”

With this comprehensive approach in mind, the county is looking for solutions along the lower part of the Nooksack River, where residents and the farming community were heavily affected by flooding. Providing incentives and financial compensation to do this environmental work could also help to ease the financial impact of the flood.

“Looking at habitat pieces, it’s good for salmon, we can do it in a way that supports farming and that’s the way that we should continue to go forward,” Shewmake said. “We can also do it in a way that provides flood mitigation.” 

Shewmake said many programs around the state work voluntarily with farmers and forest owners to create habitat like the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a federal program where farmers get paid to farm habitat. 

“Instead of growing wheat or berries, they can farm native species and contribute to land management and riparian reserves while getting paid to do that,” Shewmake said. She supports increasing funding so that more farmers can participate. 

Paradox: both floods and shortages

Many farmers do prioritize habitat preservation along with a desire to make a living in agriculture. Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers, said it is discouraging to be told that farms aren’t doing their part in contributing to the environmental work in the county.

“If you look at the number of acres that have been planted and streamlined, it is immense, Likkel said. “I think it’s the second best of any county in the state, we’ve been working very hard at that.”

Likkel said farmers want to see salmon survive just as much as anybody else does, but they also want to be able to farm. “Let’s be able to work together to provide solutions that work for both,” Likkel said. “The farmers are happy to come to the table and discuss those things, they absolutely are.”

For farmers in particular, the Nooksack presents a paradox, providing challenges both with floods and with water shortages. Likkel said the problem isn’t that the county doesn’t have enough water, it’s that it gets too much at the wrong time.

“There are natural ways to manage that and there are artificial ways of managing it,” Likkel said. “There were times in the past where we leaned too much on the artificial, where they talked about just dredging the river; we can’t think that way anymore.”

Likkel said the farming community recognizes that but at the same time it is not possible for nothing to be done.

“We have cities like Everson, Sumas and Nooksack that are in harm’s way and we have to figure out how we’re all going to work together on this,” Likkel said. “It’s really important. The tools are there, the resources are there, we just need to figure out how to work together.”

Likkel said he is encouraged to see positive movement but that the community at large still has a long way to go. In the short term, he said measures like levees, water storage measures or selectively removing gravel to provide side channels need to be considered as the county works towards long-term solutions.

“We need to look at those things and consider them, long-term it has to be a comprehensive solution but I think there are some things that we can do together that can get us there,” Likkel said. “There are tools we can use and we need financial resources from the state and federal government to speed up things.”

Restoring the river’s ‘backbone’

Many river valley problems with silt and gravel runoff begin far upstream. Solutions require working throughout the Nooksack River drainage. Personius said revegetating and restoring degraded riparian areas with native tree cover can improve salmon habitat by filtering stormwater runoff and helping cool the water by providing more shade. These projects can also reduce silt flow that contributes to flooding below. 

Michael Maudlin, forest and fish specialist and restoration geomorphologist for the Nooksack Tribe’s Natural Resources department, said the tribe does some planting work but really focuses on in-stream measures like engineered log jams.

“If you think about the natural process, you have the river eroding forest, those trees fall into the river and then they create pools, stabilizing banks and then creating islands,” Maudlin said. “They’re really the backbone of the river.”

Until riparian conditions can improve to where that process works on its own, Maudlin said the tribe does interim enhancement projects. Using engineered log jams, they recreate structures in the river that had disappeared due to riparian degradation, the history of wood removal and natural depletion.

Maudlin said one challenge with engineered log jams in relation to flooding is that they stack up water locally. 

“Our focus is trying to make sure that there’s enough width, enough room for the river to migrate, enough areas for flood waters to be stored, that things aren’t necessarily just being transported downstream and becoming a problem somewhere else,” Maudlin said. “It’s a planning issue more than a restoration one.”

While flood management and salmon restoration are different issues, Maudlin said they are related in terms of bank protection projects, in preventing rapid floodplain turnover and making sure fish habitats are maximized.

“We’re just trying to work towards an integrative solution that is considering fish with our flood management planning,” Maudlin said. “Making sure that we’re not just doing the quickest, easiest thing to try and come up with a solution when there’s maybe better options out there.”

Figuring out long-term solutions that can encompass the interests of flood-prone areas, salmon population, farming, Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Tribe and the entirety of the Whatcom County community is the work at hand for local leadership. 

— Reported by Clifford Heberden

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