By Chris Wilke, Puget Soundkeeper

Canoeing in November, the Samish River. The Samish would be ‘River Number Twelve’ as part of Soundkeeper’s Twelve Rivers in Twelve Months program, launched in January 2013 to increase our understanding of the river systems that feed Puget Sound.

The mission today: get safely down the river and find out what we can about agricultural pollution that plagues this small, short, lowland stream north of Mount Vernon. Hopefully we will learn something about why, despite years of inspections, technical assistance, stakeholder meetings, incentives and expenditures, the shellfish downstream in Samish Bay are still closed to harvest for much of the year due to fecal coliform bacteria.

Before we even launch, we can see how much the river has changed in just a few short weeks. In late October, we witnessed giant Chinook (king) salmon spawning and jumping in the autumn sun at the Old Highway 99 bridge crossing.  Today, their spawned-out carcasses litter the shallows, along with fallen maple leaves that once captured the sunlight above. Their fertilized eggs lie hidden beneath the gravel before us, containing the hopes, instincts, and genetic codes for the next generation of salmon survivors, even as the decaying bodies of the parents now began to nourish the river.

Dead salmon

The smaller and more numerous pink salmon are long gone. Actually, almost gone.  Having spawned even earlier, their bodies are still barely visible along the banks, exposed by lower water but rapidly becoming river compost and assuming the color of the sediment. In some cases only their outlines are still visible. A few weeks earlier they were bright silver bullets, full of ocean nutrients returning from the sea. As they reached the spawning beds their bodies changed. The backs of the males grew into enormous humps and their jaws grew large grotesque canine teeth to assist them as they postured and chased each other to defend spawning rights, while females dug redds for their eggs. The drama complete, now there is only stillness along the flowing river, the air ripe with the smell of two species of rotting salmon- a strange but familiar odor that actually seems to grow on you in a weird way.

Time to Launch. Not fifty yards downstream is our first obstacle, a log jam across the entire river. Lee, Sue, Katelyn and I wisely slide our canoes below to prepare for the launch.  We’ll encounter at least three more log jams along the trip. Although hazardous to canoes and their contents, the large woody debris is a sign of healthy river habitat, providing complex structure with deep pools, side channels and cover for both juvenile and adult fish.  The source of the log jams, mature trees that fall into the river, also provides valuable habitat with much needed shade to keep summer temperatures low. It’s hard to imagine in November, but high water temperatures here can be lethal to salmon.

Sue and LeeAlthough signs of life abound, the Samish is far from pristine. Both the mainstem and tributaries like Thomas Creek are highly impaired, regularly exceeding standards for fecal coliform bacteria, temperature, pH, turbidity and/or dissolved oxygen.  And the lower we go on the main stem of the Samish, the more we’ll see increasing effects of bank armoring, loss of vegetative cover, and agricultural discharges, not to mention the pollution from tributaries that drain through agricultural land, carrying the effluent from dairy feedlots, leaking manure lagoons, heifer operations, and beef cattle farms. Although bacterial contamination can come from a variety of sources, including residential septic systems, the Department of Health has confirmed the shellfish closures in Samish Bay are largely due to agricultural pollution upstream in the river. Yes, it’s the cows.

As we glide downstream, I note how a river in late fall or winter can be a quiet, forgotten place – at least until a bright coho salmon suddenly jars my senses, leaping into the air and crashing back to the water with a splash. About eight to ten pounds in my estimation. Although it’s not always obvious, the river is very much alive.

Now it is the coho salmon’s turn, following the larger Chinook and preceding the fall chum run. I find that coho tend to conceal their presence better than other fish, at least until one abruptly jumps. Coho live in fresh water the longest of all five Pacific salmon species and are the most adapted to small streams.  Before we take out we’ll see a few fishermen along the bank, casting tiny lures in hopes of a bite from an ocean-bright fish. A few more fish jump, but no fish are caught today, at least not that we can see.

Interesting treeThe lower Samish is not an extremely hazardous river to navigate- there are no rapids in this section- but a tender craft like a canoe demands attention.  We carefully guide our canoes through snags and side channels around rocks and portage around log jams, stopping along the way to take water samples to test for fecal coliform and nitrates- signs of agricultural pollution sources that impact shellfish and salmon, causing losses of economic and recreational opportunity.

Later, the results from our samples in the main stem of the Samish would confirm elevated levels of bacteria, well above shellfish and drinking water standards, but not so high as to be unsafe for human contact. It had been a couple days since the last rain and the ground was not yet saturated with water, so the pollution today would prove to be not too alarming. At the mouth of Thomas Creek the situation is a little different though, the creek is flowing chocolate brown and the main river below it is noticeably worse as well, a fact our fecal and nitrate levels later confirm. Although still not extremely high, our sample result from the creek shows it was not safe for direct human contact.

When a significant rain event comes, the situation is much worse than we encounter on the day of our river patrol.  This was confirmed by another sample taken two weeks later, after a big November rainstorm.  The bacteria levels in Thomas Creek would be almost ten times higher, despite the increased dilution of the higher water. The later samples would be gathered from shore because it would not be safe to be in the water that day.

Katelyn CoalAlthough some progress has been made in reducing pollution in the Samish, the river is still listed as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act, requiring implementation of a cleanup plan.  Unfortunately, the oysters in the bay still bear the brunt of these rain events.  Conditionally-approved for harvest, the Department of Health rigorously monitors shellfish safety and automatically closes the beds when the river level comes up above a certain volume, because that means the ditches and creeks along the cow pastures, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs – or feedlots) and manure spreading operations are discharging. A shellfish specialist with the Department has described the Samish as their “single-biggest frustration”. Salmon in the river are also impacted by agricultural practices that contribute to lack of quality habitat and cause violations for high temperatures, low dissolved oxygen and low pH.

Back on the river, we work downstream, stopping briefly to watch eagles overhead. It appears that the annual Skagit eagle congregation may be just beginning. A heron fishes in the shallows, and a kingfisher swoops to grab a meal. Under a railroad crossing Katelyn gets out to check for coal that falls off of trains headed for Canada. Add the Samish River to the list of coal-affected waterways!

Downstream from Interstate-5 and Chuckanut Drive, the river changes character. Trees become scarce and the banks are high and diked to prevent flooding in the nearby fields.  Because the channel is narrowed, the water is deep almost everywhere and there can be no more wading. Although the river is free from most hazards, the banks are steep and unwelcoming, and the takeout is somewhat treacherous.

We make sure our take out is complete by 2:00pm so we can get the samples to the lab before the hold time expires. Our shuttle driver, a veteran of water quality monitoring in the area, warns us: “Wash your hands before you do anything.”

SamplingIt is a fitting conclusion for our Twelve Rivers project. One of the smallest streams we navigated this year, the Samish has a Mississippi-sized controversy associated with it, due to the political challenges associated with making meaningful progress on agricultural pollution.  “Ag” producers are bound by nutrient management plans, but these plans are secret from the public eye.  The Department of Ecology is not even allowed on-site to inspect dairies, the job instead falling to Department of Agriculture.  The vast majority of feedlots don’t even have a CAFO permit under the Clean Water Act, by default asserting that they simply have no discharge, even as the shellfish beds and the river fail to meet standards.

One can only imagine what this stream looked like before the flood control, before the farms came that supply our local milk and cheese.  Could it have been done differently?  Could the farms have been built in way that honored the river? We obviously need our farms and local food is now more important than ever. Could we still create a Samish Valley that protects salmon, shellfish, recreation and farming?

These questions are not unlike the ones we pose for urban stormwater. Ultimately we cannot save Puget Sound unless we are willing to tackle these issues and make tough choices to do what is necessary.

Fortunately solutions are at hand to allow agricultural businesses to remain and thrive, while protecting our waterways.  It will take participation from everyone however. We must protect, restore and respect buffers and setbacks, and manage livestock waste responsibly so that discharges are at an absolute minimum, even in wet weather, even in November.

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