August 27, 2006

Good News About the Nisqually River

I’ve been absent here for almost two weeks because of the press of events, but also because I’ve spent every available computer hour with any sort of mental energy on applying for a different job. I’ve finished that now, so we’ll see how that works out. In the meantime, I’ll catch up.

About ten days ago, I attended a session of the summer lecture series at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). The series is an annual, summer event sponsored by the Nisqually NWR Friends group. The session was entitled “Recovering Salmon, Restoring the Nisqually Watershed and it was presented by Jeanette Dorner, the Nisqually Tribe’s Salmon Recovery Program Manager.” It was my favorite of the year, not the least because of the energy and passion of the presenter, but because of the good news she brought. Good news is rare in the salmon recovery, environmental restoration and protection world, at least from what I can see.

It turns out that the Nisqually River is better off than the other rivers that flow into Puget Sound. Its estuary is relatively intact (thanks to the Nisqually NWR and the effort during the 70’s to prevent the estuary from being converted to a “super port” for the shipment of logs overseas. The two dams on the river probably do not constrict the salmon bearing length of the river (a now-submerged, impassable waterfall previously served as the end of salmon habitat). There are no big cities parked along its length, as is the fate of the Puyallup and the Snohomish. Most of the land along the banks of the river is in some sort of protected status, either because it’s in the NWR or because of the type of ownership. Much of the course of the river and its tributaries is still undisturbed and useful for salmon and other wildlife. Its waters are visited by several of the species of salmon native to the area, perhaps all of them that historically used the river. And, most important, the river’s banks are home to a committed steward of the river, the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

Ms. Dorner talked about several of the restoration projects that the Tribe has undertaken in recent years and also talked about plans for more, as funding becomes available. The Mashel River is the largest tributary of the Nisqually and has been channelized through some portions of its length, which greatly reduces its value to fish, because it reduces hiding places, spawning areas, and increases flow speed. She described the construction of log jams – engineered log jams! – that help restore resting and hiding places for fish, as well as spawning habitat, by sorting gravel and creating deeper pools. The project led to a dramatic increase in fish usage and survival in the year after it was installed.

Ohop Creek is a significant tributary of the Nisqually that was straightened during the 30’s, which deepens the channel and speeds the flow of water. The Tribe and its partners have gathered over a dozen landowners into an agreement to restore the creek to its previous meandering course. This project has been in planning for some time and will begin construction next summer.

A project that anyone can see just by driving through the Nisqually delta on I-5, southbound is best. Most of the delta was diked many years ago to keep the tide out and create farm land. The 100 acres on the east side of the river, outside the NWR, is now being worked on to remove the dikes and provide a fresh water connection to the wetland between the freeway lanes. This will allow most of that land to return to a salt marsh supporting the estuary habitat. A pilot project of a few acres a few years ago was very successful, with fish following the first tide onto the new wet land and birds using it that first evening.

All in all, a very satisfying evening in a world that sometimes gives me the feeling of waking up in a hand basket, wondering where I’m going.

Cross-posted at Olyblog.

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