It’s the end of an era for Upper Skagit tribal fishermen as the last full return of hatchery steelhead arrives in the Skagit River this winter.
“Our ancestors gave up everything so that we could continue to fish in our traditional areas,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “Without hatchery production, we can’t have a meaningful fishery.”
The last full steelhead fishery is especially bittersweet for Schuyler, whose 14-year-old daughter just received her first tribal fishing card. “Maybe she’ll be able to have one day of fishing a year,” he said. “That’s not a meaningful fishery.”
Steelhead are a culturally important species that the Upper Skagit Tribe harvests for commercial, ceremonial and subsistence purposes. Historically, steelhead were available during the long winter months when other species were not available to feed tribal families.
Hatchery programs have been a part of fisheries management in Washington for more than 100 years, making up for lost natural production as a result of degraded and destroyed habitat. Guided by science, hatchery management in western Washington is carefully managed to protect the genetic health of wild fish. In the Skagit River, hatchery programs also provide mitigation for the ongoing effects of hydroelectric plants.
Last spring, the Wild Fish Conservancy sued the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) over hatchery winter steelhead programs that used Chambers Creek broodstock.
“Hatcheries are under attack,” Schuyler said. “Taking away hatchery programs leaves tribes under certain circumstances with a severely diminished or no opportunity.”
The Upper Skagit Tribe, along with the Lummi Nation and Tulalip and Stillaguamish tribes, released a statement at the time of the lawsuit saying that the Wild Fish Conservancy “erroneously concluded that hatchery production, rather than the loss of habitat, is responsible for the depressed state of the Puget Sound Steelhead populations.”
However, WDFW settled the lawsuit, agreeing to halt the release of Chambers Creek hatchery steelhead in all Puget Sound rivers but one, until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approves each program. The settlement also put a 12-year moratorium of steelhead hatchery releases in the Skagit River.
This year will be the Upper Skagit Tribe’s last full season fishing for hatchery steelhead, with returns reduced starting next year, and gone by 2017.
EVERETT, Wash. — A judge ruled against a couple Tuesday after they sued for the right to drill a well and build a new home on their property in Skagit County.
The case marks the latest battle in the ongoing fight over water rights in Washington’s Skagit River valley.
Snohomish County Superior Court Judge George Appel dismissed the case brought by property owners Richard and Marnie Fox. He told the couple that they can’t build a home on their property because they don’t have legal access to water.
That’s because of a 2001 rule that basically says there has to be enough water left in the Skagit River to protect spawning salmon
The courtroom was packed. There were a lot of people who had come in from rural parts of the county because this rule affects a lot of property owners. More than 450 property owners stand to have their property values decreased because of this rule — because they no longer have legal access to water.
Critics of the rule said they are calling on state legislators to reexamine this 2001 rule to see what can be done to reset the balance the interests of property owners with the interests of protecting fish.
SEDRO-WOOLLEY, Wash. — The house was going to be modest, 1,300 square feet with a big porch looking out over acres of fields. Next to it would be a garage with a caretaker’s apartment over it.
“I’m kind of an old guy already,” Richard Fox said, standing in the pouring rain on his property and gesturing to the spot where he and his wife’s dream retirement home was to be built. A handful of drenched cows looked on, vaguely curious.
“We’re not trying to break the law. We’re just trying to build a house. That’s all we’re trying to do,” he said. “Let us move on with our lives.”
Richard and Marnie Fox already have the plans in place. The well is drilled. The septic is in.
But Skagit County won’t issue them a building permit. By doing so, the county says, it would be violating a rule established in 2001 that says there has to be a certain amount of water left in the Skagit River to protect fish. And drilling more domestic wells like the Foxes’ will deplete the flow of the river.
The case will be heard Tuesday in Snohomish County Superior Court. The Washington Department of Ecology and the Swinomish Tribe are intervening in the case.
This is just the latest skirmish in an ongoing war over the future of water use in the Skagit River watershed. The Foxes are one of more than 450 homeowners who have been denied access to well water because of what is called the Instream Flow Rule. The rule established a water right for fish that trumps property owners who want to tap into groundwater reserves after the rule went into effect in 2001.
The rule has meant precipitous drops of up to 80 percent in property values for those 450-plus homeowners because the state has effectively invalidated their water rights.
For those landowners and other would-be developers in the area it’s a tough pill to swallow; especially when it’s pouring rain and there are flood warnings in place for the Skagit River.
For Richard Fox, it doesn’t help that his property has turned into a mini-lake. But that is not always the case. During the late summer months conditions here and elsewhere in the Skagit basin are dry. That’s when groundwater is a critical source of water for the Skagit and its tributaries. If more property owners, like the Foxes, are allowed to suck groundwater out via their wells, that will take water away from fish when they need it most, Ecology and the Swinomish Tribe assert.
During the drier parts of the year, groundwater can make up between 40 and 90 percent of the water in Skagit River tributaries (of which there are more than 2,000), according to research done by the Department of Ecology in preparation for the 2001 Instream Flow Rule. Other research from the U.S. Geological Survey supports those findings.
“This is the critical timing problem that we face,” said John Rose, a hydrogeologist with the Washington Department of Ecology. “We have these periods where the primary amount of inflow into our rivers is groundwater. It happens when we’re having the biggest drawdown due to human use and then right immediately afterwards, when we’re at the lowest levels, is when you have the fish runs.”
It may seem like an intractable problem, but Ecology has been exploring ways to offset the water usage of new development by installing rainwater catchment systems and trucking in water. Ecology is also speaking with hydropower operators on the river – Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light – to see about getting them to release more water from above the dams during those late summer months to accommodate the higher demand.
Rainwater catchment systems present an added cost for property owners, as do water truck deliveries.
“It’s just not necessary,” said Zachary Barbornias of Just Water Alliance. “Who’s going to pay for that?” Just Water Alliance has joined with Washington Realtors, the Building Industry Association of Washington, the Washington State Farm Bureau and others to petition the state to repeal the instream flow rule, arguing that Ecology’s proposed mitigation attempts are costly and “provide little or no actual benefit to instream resources.”
Zachary Barborinas is the head of the Just Water Alliance, which opposes the instream flow rule because it limits development. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.
“We support all of the habitat restoration that goes on and millions that are spent. We, as taxpayers, pay for that,” Barborinas said, “but Ecology at the same time should be setting aside water for people. That’s the bottom line.”
In 2006 Ecology brokered a deal with Skagit County that would have satisfied Barborinas and other landowners by changing water allocations in order to allow for development in the Skagit basin. The Swinomish Tribe sued Ecology, saying it had no right to change the rule to allow for any more wells. That battle went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Swinomish in October of last year.
The Fox case represents the next round in the ongoing legal battle between development interests and environmental interests in the Skagit watershed, and it is wearying for everyone.
“Washington State Supreme Court has ruled on this issue already,” said Larry Wasserman, referring to the 2013 State Supreme Court decision. Wasserman is the environmental policy director for the Swinomish Tribe, which is intervening in the Foxes’ case on Tuesday. He’s worked on this issue on behalf of the tribe for more than 20 years. “This is settled law and the science behind that rule and that law has been well established, well vetted and supported fully by the Washington Department of Ecology.”
The Swinomish and other tribes argue that the river has been depleted, bit by bit, as each new home or development has gone in over the years and no further groundwater depletion should be allowed.
“At some point you reach a point where any additional impact is too much,” Wasserman said. “And if we say, ‘Well just these 400 or 500 landowners’ [which would include the Foxes], what happens to the next landowner that comes along and makes the same argument, and the next one after that? The issue is we have an inadequate amount of water right now.”
The Swinomish Tribe and Ecology have both indicated that they will appeal if the court rules in favor of granting the Foxes a building permit on Tuesday. And so the fight will go on, with countless more dollars spent on legal fees by the state, the tribes and building interests.
“This is kind of ground zero for the state right now for water issues,” Barborinas said. State legislators have been meeting with interested parties in the Skagit to brainstorm possible legislative solutions to the water fight.
The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe is tagging juvenile steelhead to estimate freshwater productivity and learn more about smolt-to-adult survival in the Skagit River.
Steelhead have a complex life history, making it hard for salmon managers to forecast returns. Juvenile steelhead can leave freshwater habitat between their first and fourth year of life, and return from the salt water after one to five years. In addition, steelhead are repeat spawners, unlike other species of salmon, so they can return to salt water before coming back to fresh water to spawn again.
Compared to other river systems in Puget Sound, the Skagit River still has an abundance of wild steelhead.
“We estimate how many adult steelhead come back to the Skagit River based on spawning ground surveys,” said Jon-Paul Shannahan, biologist for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “Right now, we don’t know how many juvenile steelhead leave the watershed.”
The tribe has partnered with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to collect steelhead smolts using screw traps in Hansen and Illabot creeks. The smolts are tagged with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags that will provide data when the steelhead leave and return to the two tributaries. These PIT-tagged steelhead can also be monitored for encounters in other research or harvest sampling.
This spring, the Upper Skagit Natural Resources Department plans to install one PIT tag antenna array in Hansen Creek that will record information when tagged fish swim over the antennas. If funding is secured, another antenna array will be installed in Illabot Creek next year.
Previous data has shown that steelhead out-migrate from the upper Skagit watershed at an older age compared to fish in the lower watershed. Illabot Creek is near Rockport in the upper watershed, and Hansen Creek is in the lower watershed near the tribe’s Sedro-Woolley reservation.
“These two creeks represent a tiny sliver of the available habitat,” Shannahan said. “We picked these two productive tributaries as initial sites to represent the age diversity of the smolts and the habitat conditions from the entire basin. We have decent adult return data, some decent habitat and flow data, and plan to expand this data to get a picture of the entire basin productivity. ”
Ultimately, the tribe wants to incorporate this research into long-term monitoring in the Skagit basin, but has not identified a long-term funding source.
“We believe this is a unique project on the Skagit,” said Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Tribe. “Given how complex the life history is for steelhead, this is an great opportunity to truly learn more about the species.”
For more information, contact: Jon-Paul Shannahan, Upper Skagit Tribe, 360-854-7089 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Kari Neumeyer, NWIFC, 360-424-8226 or email@example.com
Everett, Wash. Dec. 16, 2013—It’s time to head over to the Skagit River and see one of the largest wintering populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states. Visitors can view and learn about them from volunteers with the Eagle Watchers Program hosted by the US Forest Service. Three viewing stations with off-highway parking along North Cascades Highway 20 provide spotting scopes and binoculars to help you see the birds up close. Volunteers will staff stations Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 21-Jan. 26.
Eagle Watcher stations are located at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, Sutter Creek Rest area (milepost 100) and the Marblemount Fish Hatchery. Look for the yellow signs. View a map showing the viewing sites and learn more about Skagit River wildlife. Call 360-856-5700 ext. 515 for more information.
A rainy April and a hotter-than-normal week in May have created a challenge for the steelhead fry expected to emerge in August.
The rain, combined with heavy snowmelt after a string of 80-degree days in May, built up in the reservoir of Seattle City Light’s Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. In order to prevent an overflow that could scour out steelhead redds (nests), the utility released more water than usual, increasing the flow of the Skagit River. As a result, spawning steelhead dug redds in places at risk of being dewatered before the last fry emerge this summer, when flows are lower.
Water management in the Skagit River is guided in part by salmon spawning surveys conducted by biologists Stan Walsh of the Skagit River System Cooperative and Dave Pflug of Seattle City Light. The Skagit River System Cooperative is the natural resources extension of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes.
Based on data gathered by Walsh and Pflug, Seattle City Light will release enough water in August to keep vulnerable steelhead eggs under water.
“We haven’t had a steelhead redd dewatered in years,” Walsh said.
Walsh and Pflug have monitored salmon and steelhead redds between Rockport and Newhalem on the Upper Skagit River since 1995. They document new redds, note the condition of existing redds, and measure the depth of the shallowest redds to make sure the river’s flow stays high enough for those eggs to survive, but not so high that the eggs are washed away.
They also share data with state fisheries co-managers to help forecast runs sizes.
“Seattle City Light has been a great partner to the tribes in water management,” Walsh said. “They’ve gone out of their way to protect fish beyond what’s required in their license agreement.”
Unlike chinook, chum, pink and coho salmon, steelhead are repeat spawners, which means Walsh and Pflug don’t encounter very many steelhead carcasses. However, this year, they have counted more steelhead redds in this stretch of the river than they have seen in the past 18 years of surveys.
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Washington Department of Transportation officials have installed a webcam at the site of the collapsed Interstate 5 bridge on the Skagit River so residents can monitor the progress on repairing it.
Nearly all the materials for a temporary bridge have arrived at the site and DOT hopes to meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s goal of spanning a collapsed section by mid-June, officials said. The National Transportation Safety Board is still finishing its site investigation, The Skagit Valley Herald reported.
A section of the bridge collapsed May 23 after a girder was struck by an oversize load on a truck. Traffic currently is detoured through Mount Vernon and Burlington
.A temporary bridge will replace the 160-foot section that fell into the water. That will reopen two lanes in each direction. A permanent replacement this fall should restore the bridge.
To get to the DOT webpage that also includes traffic cameras for the George Hopper Road exit and Highway 20, click here. The webcams should automatically reload every 2 minutes, DOT said.
MOUNT VERNON — Nearly all the materials for a temporary I-5 bridge over the Skagit River have arrived at the site and the Washington Transportation Department hopes to meet the governor’s goal of spanning a collapsed section by mid-June, officials said.
Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson told a telephone town hall Wednesday night that work can begin as soon as the National Transportation Safety Board finishes its site investigation, The Skagit Valley Herald reported.
A section of the bridge collapsed May 23 after a girder was struck by an oversize load on a truck. Traffic is detoured through Mount Vernon and Burlington, creating a roadblock on the main trade and tourism route between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C..
Kelly Nantel of the NTSB said Thursday that it had no information to release on when its investigation would be complete. An interview with the driver of a pilot car for the truck had been scheduled Wednesday but had to be rescheduled.
“They need to release the site to us and we need to get in the water and inspect the piers and see what shape they’re in,” state Transportation Department spokeswoman Abbi Russell said from Shoreline. “If they’re sound we can start looking at what the temporary structure will look like.”
Work is continuing with all possible speed. Divers worked overnight Wednesday in cold murky water to remove jagged pieces of the fallen bridge deck. Some girders still under water have to be preserved for NTSB inspectors, she said.
Work will continue through the weekend. Some piece of the temporary structure can be assembled off-site and rolled into place later.
The temporary bridge will replace the 160-foot section that fell into the water. That will reopen two lanes in each direction. A permanent replacement this fall should restore the bridge.
Federal money is paying for the temporary span and 91 percent of the replacement. But there are no plans for a new and improved bridge to replace the 58-year-old structure. Peterson told the Mount Vernon teleconference that there are a lot more bridges in Washington in worse shape.
Meanwhile, traffic delays are easing on the detours around the fallen bridge, which carried 71,000 vehicles a day.
“People are getting into a routine,” Russell said. “We still have backups here and there.” Afternoons seem a little more congested than mornings, she said.