By BRYAN CORLISS
EVERETT — It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what they do for a living.
David Steiner likes to tell people, "We build fish houses." That usually is good for a puzzled look or a "How do we order one of those?" he said.
And Mike See says that, in winter at least, "a lot of what we’re doing is driving along half-lost."
They use some high-tech tools — global positioning satellite systems and laser range finders — but also tape measures, yardsticks and some clippers for cutting through brush.
But the guys on the salmon habitat restoration crew at the Adopt-A-Stream Foundation say their jobs are both important and fun.
"I like working outdoors, trudging around in a stream and doing the stuff we do," Steiner said. "I get to do something I love, and I get paid for it. Not too many people get to gloat about that."
The Adopt-A-Stream Foundation is a nonprofit group that uses donations and grant money to perform a variety of fish-habitat projects.
Its stream rehabilitation efforts mostly are funded with state grants, said Steiner, who is the fish and wildlife division manager for the foundation, based at McCollum Park south of Everett.
The work is varied. Steiner’s crew removes and replaces culverts, and places logs, root wads, boulders, gravel and cobble into streambeds to replace lost natural features. Members also plant native trees and shrubs along the banks.
It’s an uphill battle in the burgeoning suburbs north of Lake Washington, Steiner said. It’s not uncommon for him to spend months working with landowners and grant writers to arrange a multiweek rehabilitation project, replanting several thousand feet of stream bank with native plants, for example, only to watch bulldozers destroy a like-sized swatch of natural vegetation just upstream.
"A lot of it is slow going, but things are starting to come around," Steiner said.
The work is somewhat seasonal. The stream part gets done in summer, while winter is the time for planting vegetation and conducting inventories.
The group also is a year-round buffer between landowners and environmental agencies, Steiner said. Landowners "will deal with us, but they won’t deal with anybody on the regulatory side."
Mapping culverts is drudgery, the men on the crew said. They drive along streets and roads that lay alongside creeks, and then make notes of the culverts they find.
When they find them, they crawl into the stream, wearing waders and rubber boots, to measure them. The goal is to find where there are culverts that are blocking the passage of salmon, See said.
"Adult salmon get through some pretty amazing things, but juvenile salmon need to move, too," See said.
On a recent morning, See, Seth Amrhein and Everett Turner pulled into a church parking lot next to Goldie Creek, east of Mountlake Terrace. Goldie is a tributary of Swamp Creek, which still supports a salmon run.
People have had a tremendous impact on the fish habitat, See said, while Amrhein and Turner splashed in the creek below.
The springs that used to feed the headwaters of North Creek, for example, have all been paved or built over, he said. The stream now originates from rain running off the Everett Mall parking lot or flowing through the storm drains along Evergreen Way.
The culverts also are problematic. This one is particularly bad. The pipe is rusted, full of holes and on the verge of collapse. Even if it were structurally sound, it’s too narrow. The slope is too steep, so the water flows too fast for juvenile fish. Water flowing out of the downstream end of the pipe has carved out a splash pool, but the surface of the pool is several inches below the pipe — the drop is probably too far, once again, for juvenile fish to navigate.
The water pours into the pool with a soothing sound, like an overgrown outdoor version of one of those trendy tabletop fountains.
But Turner, a former logger, fumes. Someone not long ago repaved the road over the collapsing culvert and installed some ornate concrete work along the asphalt’s edge as a sort of guardrail.
"All this fancy asphalt and they’re driving on something that’s going to give out anyway," he said, tossing in a few colorful phrases he picked up working in the woods. "They just didn’t think."
Urban streams collect their share of trash, too. This culvert’s clogged with a child’s bicycle and an abandoned shopping cart. Another, farther upstream, is sullied by a thick stack of dirty magazines. The procedure is to pull the debris out of the stream, make a note of it, and leave it, in case another crew with a cleanup mission comes along.
"Shopping carts and asphalt," Turner quips. "What more could a man ask for in life?"
The work is tedious and cold: cold water in the stream, cold air in the shaded stream banks. Amrhein’s rubber-soled boots slip on the wet grass as he tries to crawl up a bank. Turner walks hunched over for 30-plus feet as he drags a tape measure up a pipe.
Measuring culverts beneath busy I-405 or the Bothell-Everett Highway can be hair-raising. "You’ve got to be creative on how you get those done," See said.
But farther upstream, "out where Bambi still lives, it’s nice," Turner said.
The work is important, Amrhein said. The data collected during the winter will be used to set priorities for which projects the state Ecology Department will pay for next year, he said.
And with the Endangered Species Act listing of chinook salmon on Puget Sound, the effort is becoming more vital.
"This is a real exciting field," Amrhein said. "Well, not necessarily inventorying culverts."
"It’s fun work," Turner added. "It’s not that unusual. We’re just trying to clean up our forefathers’ mess-ups.
"It’s not too late for this creek here," he continued. "But if we keep screwing off, it will be."