KENMORE — As Eric Adman paddled a canoe into the mouth of Swamp Creek , he was passing over water that likely originated in rivulets and streams far to the north in Snohomish County.
The creek’s most distant headwaters lie 12 miles away, along the eastern edge of Paine Field in south Everett. Scriber Creek in Lynnwood also is a major tributary.
After it rains in Everett, it can flood in Kenmore. The King County suburb at the top of Lake Washington has long had to cope with increases in water flows and sediment.
“It’s been an ongoing threat ever since the watershed started to urbanize,” Adman said.
Development in places such as Everett and Lynnwood is the main culprit in wiping out once-healthy salmon runs on these waters. With more roofs, parking lots and other hard surfaces nearby, water enters the stream system more quickly. High flows worsen erosion and bring more pollution. The erosion puts more silt into the water column, making it inhospitable for fish. As sediment collects, homes and streets downstream face a greater risk of flooding.
In Kenmore, they know this all too well. A decade ago, the city completed $10 million worth of projects to handle flooding on its stretch of Swamp Creek. The work included raising parts of the 73rd Avenue SE corridor and building a new bridge over the road. The city bought up flood-prone properties and improved a sediment pond in Wallace Swamp Creek Park. Still, Kenmore spends an average of $100,000 per year to dredge the creek, said Kris Overleese, the city’s public works director and city engineer.
“This is not Kenmore’s sediment. It’s coming from upstream,” Overleese said. “I like to tell people that water doesn’t stop at the county line.”
About 95 percent of the creek’s watershed lies north of the county line.
Kenmore was a bit player in a recent legal settlement with Snohomish County involving water runoff around Paine Field.
Two regional environmental groups had filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit over a parking lot on Paine Field property. One plaintiff was the the Sno-King Watershed Council, where Adman serves as president. The other was the Seattle-based Waste Action Project. The city provided a $3,000 grant to help pay for a wetland study used to challenge Snohomish County’s stormwater plans.
The contested lot on 100th Street SW, east of Airport Road, isn’t directly connected to the main part of the county-run airport. Starting in 2014, the county leased it to Hoffman Construction, the main contractor building facilities for the successor to Boeing’s 777.
The environmental groups accused the county of allowing Hoffman to build 5 acres of gravel parking without taking steps to control runoff.
“The long and short of it is that the airport allowed them to do construction work without a permit,” said Bill Lider, an engineer and watershed council board member from Lynnwood who’s been active in local environmental causes.
The groups learned about the parking lot while appealing the county’s plans to alter an adjacent wetland. The environmentalists labeled the county plan a detention pond; the county called it an enhanced wetland.
The sides resolved their dispute through a federal agreement known as a consent decree. They made it final in November. The county admitted no wrong.
The accord sets aside $125,000 for rain gardens. That money would likely pay for at least 20, located according to a ranking system for where they would have the most impact, probably in the upper reaches of the Swamp Creek drainage basin. They would be designed to slow the rate at which water flows downstream and to filter out some pollutants.
The county also agreed to pay $35,000 for legal costs. It withdrew permits for the wetland project and put a conservation easement in place. Finally, the county had crews remove crushed rock from the parking lot and put down grass seed.
“Now it looks like a green pasture,” Lider said.
The lot, which had hosted a public works facility that was demolished in 2008, could be rebuilt, with proper permits and stormwater measures.
Mickie Gundersen, a founding member of the Watershed Council, hopes the settlement teaches some important lessons.
“A lot of this is about salmon,” Gundersen said. “It’s part of the ecosystem. What’s happening is we’re getting too much water in the creek in winter. We’re getting torrents of water that just wash out everything. And we’re getting low flows in the summer.”
She said there’s also the question of holding government accountable.
“I would like Snohomish County to do a better job of taking care of its citizens and not having (to) watchdog them, then paying a tremendous amount of money to take them to court,” Gundersen said.
Paine Field airport director Arif Ghouse said the county got drawn into the case as the landlord of a property where the tenant did not apply for permits.
“It was an expensive mistake,” Ghouse said. “We obviously were involved as a county.”
Hundreds of small tributaries dribble south from the Paine Field perimeter to Lake Stickney, said Tom Murdoch, executive director of the nonprofit Adopt A Stream Foundation. Swamp Creek flows from the lake. It meanders underneath the junction of I-5 and I-405, commonly known as the Swamp Creek Interchange. It then heads through Bothell, Brier and Kenmore.
Murdoch remembers seeing salmon spawn in the late 1970s near the the Walter E. Hall Golf Course, just north of the disputed parking lot.
“The salmon habitat has been degraded to the point where it would be very rare to find any salmon getting that high up into the stream system today,” he said.
About all you’ll find now, he said, are resident cutthroat trout, which have a higher tolerance to poor water quality. He has photographs from the 1980s of king salmon spawning just downstream from Lake Stickney. Historically, king salmon, silver salmon, sockeye salmon, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat trout and resident cutthroat trout all swam in the watershed. Brook lamprey still can be found around the stream bed.
Development in the watershed appears to have hit an ecological tipping point sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. Almost none of the creek has the 300-foot forested buffer, or riparian zone, thought to be essential for salmon survival, Murdoch said.
Until 1980, Snohomish County had no drainage regulations on the books, said Murdoch, who helped draft the first rules. These days, people and wildlife are living the cumulative effects.
“There’s a lot of sediment when you have this high, rapid flow of water down the stream system,” he said. “With very rapid water flows, you end up with lots of stream bank erosion, which means you have dirt in the water column.”
Adman, the Sno-King Watershed Council president, works as a firefighter-paramedic in Shoreline. He got interested in Swamp Creek after moving to his Kenmore home in 1998. About 200 feet of a tributary, Little Swamp Creek, runs through his yard.
Several years ago, his curiosity grew after Adopt A Stream canvassed his neighborhood asking if he would be interested in having volunteers restore his stream banks to mimic natural habitat. He agreed, and in 2009 and 2010, they transformed his lawn by planting trees and shrubs. He’s now a board member with Adopt A Stream.
During his time alongside the creek, he’s only seen a couple of large, red adult salmon. He suspects they were sockeye.
“It’s a rarity now, where once it was commonplace,” he said. “People who lived in my house in the early 1970s said it was just thick with salmon coming up the stream.”
Factors that have compromised water quality since then include an increase in bacteria levels. There’s less vegetation along the creek to provide shade, shore up banks from erosion and control noxious weeds.
“It’s going to take a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people to return it to what it once was, and I don’t know we’ll ever get there,” Adman said. “But I do hope that we can get some salmon returning and that everybody gets an awareness and a connection to their local streams and their local environment.”
To help Swamp Creek
Adopt A Stream has scheduled a volunteer tree-planting event near the mouth of Swamp Creek from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Location: Kenmore Waterfront Activities Center, 7353 NE 175th St., Kenmore 98028. Volunteers are are encouraged, but not required, to register for the event. Call 425-316-8592 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.