The return of salmon in Edmonds?

Edmonds-Woodway students hoping to increase spawning habitats
By Brian Soergel | Jul 28, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Emily McLaughlin Sta. Maria, left, and Ava Wilson check the water quality in Willow Creek.

Joe Cooper loves fishing for salmon. And like many Washingtonians, he digs into a salmon fillet every now and then. That’s just two reasons he’s involved in Students Saving Salmon, an Edmonds-Woodway High School club making a tangible environmental impact locally.

“I’m really into salmon fishing, so this is the other side of that,” said Cooper, who graduated from Edmonds-Woodway this year and plans to pursue ecology and conservation biology at Montana State in the fall. “You need to save salmon to be able to fish for them.”

Cooper spoke last week at Willow Creek Hatchery in Edmonds, where he and six other Students Saving Salmon club members were fine-tuning presentations for the next day’s Edmonds City Council meeting. Two members – Ava Wilson and Emily McLaughlin Sta. Maria – will remain in the club next year as students, while Cooper and the others have graduated but are finishing up their research.

Their detailed presentation to council described progress over the past year, including continuation of the monthly Edmonds Stream Team monitoring program, as well as the Shell Creek Stewardship Project.

With club members was Dave Millett, an Edmonds-Woodway biology teacher and club adviser, as well as Joe Scordino, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist who provides invaluable input and helped design the monitoring program.

Students Saving Salmon’s goal? Nothing less than to help restore salmon habitats in Edmonds.

Water quality

Each month, Students Saving Salmon club members collect water quality data from 17 monitoring sites in Edmonds’ Shell, Shellabarger and Willow creeks, as well as the Edmonds Marsh. Their instruments, supplied through a grant from the Hubbard Foundation, measure water temperature, pH levels, dissolved oxygen, salinity and more, all important for aquatic organisms to survive. Students feed results into an online database.

The students also collect water samples that an accredited lab in Everett tests for metals, petroleum products and other pollutants. Samples also are analyzed for fecal coliform at the Edmonds Wastewater Treatment Plant lab.

“We’ve done macroinvertebrate sampling with nets, which involves scruffing up the stream bottom and catching silt and things that live there,” Millette said. “We count what’s there to give us an idea of what can live in the stream.”

Students also monitor aquatic organisms every month, gauging water quality to ensure salmon are exposed to healthy conditions, as well as determining if measurements are meeting the state’s water quality standards.

Results from April 2015 to just last month show that the water quality in the three creeks does, indeed, meet those standards.

So, although the overall water quality is conducive to salmon spawning, it’s an inescapable fact that more than a century of development and pollution from various sources – including the old Unocal oil tanks – have been devastating to salmon looking to spawn in the area.

And since much of Edmonds’ stormwater drains into streams, there are concerns about biological effects – scientific studies show that stormwater can be lethal to salmon.

“Our ultimate goal is to restore salmon habitat, to restore salmon populations,” said Rondi Nordal, who graduated from Edmonds-Woodway last year and who the Snohomish County Conservation District on Dec. 1 honored as Young Environmental Leader of the Year. “We want to daylight Willow Creek, to give it access to Puget Sound and the marsh.”

The marsh and Willow Creek flow into Puget Sound through buried pipes and other structures installed in the 1960s when the Edmonds Marina was built and a large portion of the Edmonds Marsh was filled in and developed for the Harbor Square Business Complex.

The daylighting of Willow Creek is in its final design phases, with about 60 percent of it complete, said Councilmember Diane Buckshnis. The majority of finalization is dependent upon Unocal turning over the property to the state Department of Transportation.

“WSDOT has already paid for the Unocal property, and the funds are in a trust awaiting for the state Department of Ecology to sign off on the cleanup,” Buckshnis said. “The final design can't be completed, as Unocal won't allow anyone on the property. One of the final designs has Willow Creek meandering through that property rather than following along the railroad tracks. Additionally, water samples are a requirement, which is why baseline information is so valuable.”

The councilmember said student-supplied information is instrumental in future work regarding marsh restoration and daylighting Willow Creek.

The daylighting may lead to salmon again spawning in Willow Creek. In Shell Creek, in the north end of downtown Edmonds, salmon are already spawning every year. To help bolster the Shell Creek coho salmon population, the club, in May, released more than 700 juvenile salmon from Willow Creek Hatchery – at State Route 104 and Pine Street – into Shell Creek.

Salmon currently spawn only in the lower portion of the creek, downstream of Seventh Avenue North and Glen Street, due to passage barriers, including culverts and other obstacles.

One obstacle, south of Glen Street, is a 5-foot, manmade waterfall falling into a shallow portion of Shell Creek’s creek bed behind a residence. “There’s no room for fish to dive and jump up, so they can’t get upstream,” Edmonds-Woodway’s Millette said. “The prime habitat is above the waterfall.”

Shell Creek originates in Yost Park, fed by a number of natural springs as well as storm drains, including one located underneath the park’s pool.

Because much of lower Shell Creek now runs through private property, Students Saving Salmon members conducted outreach last fall, going door-to-door to contact 28 residences in the lower portion of the creek to gather firsthand observations of past salmon runs.

The goal: to increase stewardship of salmon in the stream beside residents' houses, develop an information base of local knowledge on local salmon populations, gather information needed to begin addressing habitat conditions that may affect successful salmon spawning, and begin assessing fish passage barriers in Shell Creek.

“Shell Creek has its own access to Puget Sound,” Millett said. “If we take out a waterfall here and a culvert there, we could re-establish the salmon run all the way up to Yost Park within a couple of years. That’s our goal.”

Club also benefits students

The mayor’s Climate Protection Committee has recognized Students Saving Salmon club members as Sustainable Heroes for 2017.

And all of the students presenting to City Council last week credited Millette with getting them involved in the club.

“I’ve always been interested in the environment in one way or another,” Nordal said. “I heard about the club during a morning announcement in school. I started attending meetings and getting involved in projects.”

Wilson and McLaughlin Sta. Maria say they will both continue with the club when they return to Edmonds-Woodway, saying they are passionate about protecting and enhancing the environment and plan to pursue careers in the environmental sciences.

Jared Yu said his biggest motivation for joining was to become involved in the community outside of school. The door-to-door surveys were beneficial. “I was getting skills, learning to talk to people and interacting in the community,” he said. “It’s also been beneficial seeing what scientists do by doing our monthly monitoring and data collecting.”

Sabrina Liu, who plans to go to medical school, said skills learned through the club are applicable to life at college. “I’ve made connections here, talking to residents about the stream but also just life in general. I was able to gauge how a society and community can come together. For a high school student, this is a really nice opportunity to have.”

For Taylor Blevins, monitoring streams seemed like a no-brainer. “When I went to meetings, I realized one of the creeks we monitor, Shellabarger, is right next to my house. I see it every day, basically. So to be involved in it is pretty cool.”

Scordino, who said he has more students signed up for the group for the next school year, said he enjoys working with students.

"I'm really impressed with these students' enthusiasm and willingness to give up their free time to not only study the local environment, but actually go out in the field, regardless of weather, to collect scientific data and conduct habitat restoration for salmon.

“They really understand the importance of presenting factual, on-the-ground information that can be used to identify potential problem areas or to commend the community on good conditions where they exist. And that's exactly what they did in their presentation to the City Council."


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