ARLINGTON — “This is going to be anti-climactic,” the excavator driver yelled as he dug the machine’s shovel into a pile of mud.
A few scoops later, a trickle of water broke through.
The water inched its way through a 600-foot trench Tuesday and meandered through a series of logs and stumps and rocks, until it reached the other side, where it connected with a roadside ditch.
And so a stream was born.
The $250,000 Adopt A Stream project, part of the Olaf Strad tributary about a mile south of Arlington Municipal Airport, was years in the making. Before, coho salmon would have to swim in roadside ditches along 162nd Avenue NE and 67th Avenue NE, exposed to all the pollutants that come with roads and cars.
The project was funded by the state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife, as well as the Tulalip Tribes.
Take a glance at the ditches while driving by on 67th and you might not realize fish were using them. But there’s a lot of traffic in that little waterway.
Tom Murdoch, director of the Adopt A Stream Foundation, said staff and volunteers caught more than 1,800 fish, mostly coho salmon and cutthroat trout, over a few days leading up to the new stream’s completion. Murdoch assumed there were at least twice that number, because they were only using hand nets.
At the 3-acre plot of land, owned by Snohomish County’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the new stream doesn’t look like much right now. It’s the tail end of summer, and the water is running low. That’s on purpose, Murdoch said. A higher flow would push through too much sediment and carve out a too-straight path.
“I’m seeing clear water here, so our timing is right,” Murdoch said as the stream began to pick up a little speed.
The low flow will carve a path, bit by bit, naturally zigzagging around and over obstacles. New pools and eddies will form, providing important resting places for salmon.
In this case, the stream will help coho salmon, what Murdoch called the acrobats of the salmon world. They’ll go as far upstream as they can.
This winter, they should be coming to the Olaf Strad tributary in droves, by way of Quil Ceda Creek. They’ll continue on, underneath the Centennial Trail and up to Donald Gadway’s property. With gravel beds and plenty of tree cover to shade and cool the water, Gadway’s place is a paradise for fish spawning.
A county drainage map shows that the stream keeps going for a bit and branches off into two, then ends. It’s possible that fish keep going, though Murdoch said he hasn’t seen in person what the end of the creek looks like.
Murdoch calls the stream a demonstration project, a way to show how it’s possible to improve conditions for migrating fish. He hopes to work with other property owners to enhance other parts of the Olaf Strad tributary.
The Quil Ceda used to be one the most productive waterways for salmon in the region, he said. In recent decades, however, fish have been hemmed in by development, constrained to man-made waterways, many of which weren’t built with fish in mind. Often they’re straight and devoid of any natural elements. That means there’s not much to slow the flow, particularly when the water is high. It can be tough going for fish trying to wriggle their way upstream, even the acrobatic cohos.
“Mother Nature would not have put them in that straight line,” Murdoch said.
Murdoch credited Gadway for his help in making the new stream possible. Gadway used to own this 3-acre plot, and he still lives just up the hill. He wasn’t doing much with it, he said. He donated the land to the county with the requirement that the new stream be built. Protecting salmon was important to him, he said. He didn’t like seeing them struggle in the muck and mire of the roadside ditch.
The small Adopt A Stream team and a handful of volunteers did most of the work in building the stream. They moved a lot of dirt, caught a lot of fish and put in place those rocks and logs and stumps. Next, they’ll plant trees from one end of the property to the other, creating a mini-riparian zone — a place where trees and vegetation sidle up to the water, creating a habitat that’s beneficial to salmon and to other wildlife. Plans call for a mix of willow, dogwood, alder, spruce, cedar and fir.
The willow and alder will be planted close to the stream. They’re faster-growing, and the roots will help firm up the banks, preventing erosion. The trees also will fulfill Gadway’s late wife’s wish to block the view of the power lines.
Passersby on the Centennial Trail will get to see a new habitat grow and form around the stream. Murdoch said he wants to install a sign to tell people about the project, and to show them they can still help the salmon, no matter what the land looks like now.
“It’s never too late,” he said.
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