12 Rivers in 12 Months!

“Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery elements are made for wise men to contemplate and for fools to pass by without consideration ”. Izaak Walton (1593 – 1683), author of the Compleat Angler

By Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper and Executive Director

Chris on PatrolThe Puget Sound Basin has a huge watershed: 12,138 square miles. It encompasses thousands of streams, hundreds of lakes, dozens of rivers, and of course the marine waters of Puget Sound. And it’s all connected.

For some this last point may be obvious, but it’s worth acknowledging and exploring. What does it mean to be connected from the mountains to the sound? What issues are unique to upper watersheds and what are the challenges faced all over? Exploring the answers to these questions is the point of the 12 Rivers in 12 months program, just launched by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance.

Our organizational name implies the marine waters of Puget Sound, but we have always considered the upper, middle and lower watersheds to be part of our mission to protect and preserve the Sound.   All water flows downhill, and our eighteen major river basins, their tributaries -including at least forty more named rivers- and 10,000 streams are just as important to the health of the Sound as the marine waters that bear its name.

Of course salmon are the great link between fresh and salt.  Eight species of salmon and anadromous (sea-going) trout ply Puget Sound rivers every season of the year.  Some river systems, like the mighty Skagit even host all eight species! Can you name all eight?

Do you know the closest river to you, and which salmon species are present?  Or which watershed you live in, even if it’s a small creek?  Does that creek down the street flow into the Sound, or a lake, or is it part of a larger river basin? What are the most significant impacts to your watershed?  What could we have if we brought our waters back to life?

We believe it’s worthwhile to explore these topics.

Skagit River bendI have thought about many of our affiliated Waterkeeper programs around the country. How are their tasks different than ours, especially if they work to protect a freshwater river and its surrounding watershed as their central mission?  Many Waterkeeper programs around the world are known as Riverkeepers, including the very first one, the Hudson Riverkeeper.  In Washington, we have a Spokane Riverkeeper and a Columbia Riverkeeper.  In Oregon, Willamette, Rogue and Tualitin Riverkeepers. Further south, we have the Klamath Riverkeeper. Further east, we have our Big Blackfoot Riverkeeper in Montana, Lower Mississippi in Louisiana, as well as other Riverkeeper programs in Tennessee, Delaware and on the Potomac. Some of these are massive watersheds, like our own Columbia River, others are more local. There is even a Hurricane Creekkeeper in Alabama for instance.

Patrolling the watershed by boat is at the core of our work as Waterkeepers, and in 2013 Puget Soundkeeper will get out and learn a lot more about our local river systems.

Most of Western Washington is defined by the great salt water estuary that is Puget Sound. It is a magnificent national treasure, with orca whales, seals and sea lions and beautiful vistas. Might we risk losing sight of our rivers because of this?  Were it not for Puget Sound, would the Duwamish, Puyallup and Snohomish be our waterfronts? Aren’t they equally vital to our region?

To bring awareness to the issue of the health of our rivers, Puget Soundkeeper staff and our partners will float sections of twelve rivers in 2013. We’ll be patrolling for pollution, cleaning up debris, learning about the local issues like stormwater, agricultural pollution, logging and riparian habitat loss.  We’ll learn about the state of our salmon and steelhead, who some of the major players are, and hopefully meet some new allies and gain important knowledge along the way.

For each river, we will pick a day (or two) and we’ll float a section of the river that has an impact we want to study. We’ll look for partners to help us with local knowledge and expertise on the particular challenges in their watershed.

Chris & Paul on the Green RiverWe are already underway! In January, we started on our home waters of the Green/Duwamish River. Although we patrol the lowest reaches on the lower Duwamish River every week, for this project Soundkeeper staffers Katelyn Kinn, Paul Fredrickson and I launched on the lower Green River, 12 miles upstream from the mouth of the Duwamish.

Joined by noted paddler and former Soundkeeper Boardmember Lee Moyer, we paddled canoes down through heavily impacted industrial and commercial lands. We documented massive stormwater infrastructure, including huge waste gates with warning signs and we found good locations for water monitoring. We noted a sunken outboard engine, cleaned up debris including a partially full gas can.  We stuck our noses up the historic Black River, the original outlet of Lake Washington, now just a backwater and flood control outlet of the Kent Valley. We noted the persistent discoloration of the Black River, actually more of a thick caramel brown, and the noticeable sheen on the surface.

From there, we entered the Duwamish River upstream of the Superfund Cleanup area, paddling past fishing shacks and a colorful waterfront community.  We knew we were getting close to the salt when a sea lion exploded through the surface not 20 feet from our canoe.  It jumped 5 more times as it raced back down to the Sound. Given the time of year it was likely following steelhead upstream, looking to grab an easy meal.

Two weeks later, we were on the lower Skagit River, paddling through agricultural lands. Once again in canoes, we ventured out with our colleagues Lee First and Matt Krogh from North Sound Baykeeper, who taught us first-hand about the meaning of the term “combat canoeing”, a necessary skill to have around the twisting channels, logjams and overhanging brush on the heavily-impacted  Skagit tributary known as Nookachamps Creek. There, Swinomish Tribe biologist and Environmental Policy Director Larry Wasserman showed us how manure pollution, low dissolved oxygen and habitat destruction are severely impacting the salmon runs. It was clear that these impacts had built up over time and that there was a lot to do to bring this creek back to life. Overall, agricultural practices are the largest source of water pollution in the state, and we’ll need to address them more effectively to protect shellfish and salmon. We documented what we saw as violations, and Baykeeper staff made three pollution reports to Department of Ecology.

Prior to reaching the Skagit the fog cleared, and as we joined the flows of Puget Sound’s largest river, it was a pleasurable paddle in late winter afternoon light to the take out near Mount Vernon.  The large dikes along the river protect the surrounding community from flooding, but they have channelized the habitat in many places, lessening its value for salmon and other species, putting more importance on remaining areas of viable habitat.

Several weeks later, we found ourselves with members of the Wild Steelhead Coalition on the Upper Skagit River with Dave Pflug from Seattle City Light as our biologist/guide. Once a world-famous fishery with some of the largest steelhead in the world, the entire river is now closed during what was the prime time to protect the threatened steelhead populations. We descended this section in drift boats, stopping at important locations to discuss the issues facing the recovery of the Steelhead trout…our state fish. Dave noted that the upriver habitat and water quality are good for the most part, but downriver impacts are severely challenging these fish. It was eerily quiet with all the fishermen gone. Just bald eagles goldeneyes and mergansers to keep us company.

Two down and ten to go.

The staff at Soundkeeper look forward to exploring new reaches of our watershed while learning more about the importance of our rivers, the people who live, work and play there, as well as the fish and wildlife that call it home.

Do you know something special about your local river that you’d like to share?  Have a connection with an outfitter, a fishing guide, a biologist or a tribal representative? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us at psa@pugetsoundkeeper.org if you would like to share a day on the river with us.

Stay tuned for more updates or visit our Blog.

Canoes on the Nookachamps