Growth a threat to area waters

Not long after Joyce Hoikka settled into her south Snohomish County home in 1976, her blissful move to the countrified surroundings was shattered by crashing, splashing sounds at the edge of her yard.

She looked out at Little Bear Creek, surprised to see spurts of water shooting 6 feet into the air.

“I thought, what is down here? What could be making this horrible splashing?” Hoikka recalled.

She crept closer to the creek, with her terrified and tiny Scottish terrier at her heels. When she got to the bank of the creek, she saw 4-foot-long chinook salmon splashing frantically as they muscled their way upstream.

“They were so incredibly big. It was so incredible,” Hoikka said. “I will never forget it.”

For Hoikka, however, the sight of spawning chinook has become but a memory. They haven’t returned in big numbers since the late 1970s, she said.

Still, despite rapid growth in the south county area near Maltby where Hoikka lives, Little Bear Creek still has the best salmon habitat of any of the three main tributaries that flow into the Sammamish River from the north. The land along Little Bear Creek is also the least developed.

Little Bear Creek comprises just 71/2 miles in the county’s 5,600-mile network of streams and rivers. It’s also a barometer of how future development will affect sensitive salmon streams as the county continues to grow.

More homes and businesses mean fewer forests and more impervious surfaces – rain-stopping parking lots, roads and rooftops that prevent storm water from soaking into the ground and replenishing streams, wetlands and lakes.

More pavement, and fewer trees, are the two biggest threats to healthy streams and rivers.

Little Bear Creek is expected to be one of the hardest hit streams as growth continues, according to a recently released study.

It’s not the only one, however.

Others at risk of more pollution include Swamp and North creeks in southwest Snohomish County, Allen and Quilceda creeks near Marysville, Portage Creek near Arlington, Church Creek in Stanwood and French Creek near Monroe.

The study also says that damage to water resources from future growth cannot be fully prevented. Storm-water runoff will mean more pollution in streams, and erosion will increase as more forests are cleared. And the health of wetlands will decline as water temperatures rise, stressing fish and other aquatic critters.

County officials expect another 300,000 or so residents to move here by 2025.

Most of the growth will happen in south county, in the urban growth area just west of Hoikka’s home.

The growth has already grabbed Greg Stephens’ attention as he sits behind the wheel of his pickup and stares at the new housing developments on the edge of Maltby, sprouting up like well-watered weeds.

“The growth is coming,” Stephens said. “Do we allow reasonable, managed growth? Or do we do it the old style, the Lynnwood style?”

Stephens wants to see Maltby become a city so residents can control the growth. He envisions homes clustered together like tiny villages inside a city, surrounded by great tracts of open space.

“We will encourage responsible development. We’ll encourage jobs. We’ll encourage an entire downtown commercial district that’s pedestrian friendly and transit oriented,” he said.

“We will encourage the right kind of growth. But we will have forests. … We will have salmon.”

Hoikka, who grew up in rural South Dakota, has been fighting urban development near Little Bear Creek since she moved here from California almost 30 years ago. She’s the founder of the Little Bear Creek Protective Association.

She has little faith in the county’s ability to manage growth in a way that preserves the things that make the region special – salmon, clean water and large trees.

The county turns a deaf ear to complaints about development, Hoikka said, recalling the nonchalant response she got from a county worker when she called to complain that a neighbor was cutting down a half-dozen mature cedar trees. The county lacks regulations to preserve significant trees. And property owners are allowed to take a log truck’s worth of timber off their land every year.

“We have a nice creek here. I just don’t know for how long,” she said.

Reporter Brian Kelly: 425-339-3422 or kelly@heraldnet.com.

What’s happening

Snohomish County is updating its comprehensive plan, which county decision-makers use to guide growth. The plan will help leaders prepare for growth out to 2025, and decide where that growth should be funneled. Officials say if growth is properly planned where services already exist, taxpayers ultimately will save money.

What’s next

The Snohomish County Council and the county planning commission will discuss which growth scenario the county should pursue at a meeting 5-10 p.m. Tuesday at Everett Station, 3201 Smith Ave. The public is welcome.

What’s happening

Snohomish County is updating its comprehensive plan, which county decision makers use to guide growth. The plan will help leaders prepare for growth out to 2025, and decide where that growth should be funneled. Planners say if growth is properly planned where services already exist, taxpayers ultimately save money.

What’s next

The Snohomish County Council and the county planning commission will discuss which growth scenario the county should pursue at a meeting 5-10 p.m. Tuesday at Everett Station, 3201 Smith Ave. The meeting is open to the public.

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