Report: Loss of salmon habitat continues to grow

TULALIP — Attempts to restore habitat for salmon have had some moderate successes in the past four years.

But those successes are more than offset by continuing loss of habitat and a host of other indicators, according to a report from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

“We’re losing habitat faster than we can fix it,” said Lorraine Loomis, the chairwoman of the commission.

“There’s not enough money to fix it, and then you’ve got climate change on top of it,” she said.

The new report, called the “2016 State of Our Watersheds,” looks at 22 river basins in Western Washington that lie within Native Americans’ traditional fishing grounds.

The intent of the report is to provide the tribes with a basic health outlook of those watersheds and a way of gauging progress toward salmon recovery.

The outlook, in general, is not good.

“The water protection report for the first time gives us indicators that the rules aren’t working for us,” said Terry Williams, the treaty rights commissioner for the Tulalip Tribes and also one of the commissioners with the NWIFC.

In nearly every category that the reports’ authors looked at, the environment was in worse shape than it was four years ago. That includes an increase in armored shorelines hostile to forage fish, more impervious surfaces in the region, declining forest cover, more wells tapping into aquifers, and a decreasing amount and quality of buffers along rivers and streams.

The only category of habitat not listed as “declining” was in the area of culverts that carry streams under roadways.

Even then, the report notes that in the past two years, the state has replaced just 76 culverts with wider conveyances that salmon can pass through more easily.

At that rate, it will take another 44 years to replace all 800 culverts that the state owns. On June 28, a federal appeals court ruled that the state must fix all its culverts within a 17-year time frame, an estimated $2.4 billion project.

The report updates a 2012 analysis that originated in an initiative called Treaty Rights at Risk. The new report is broken down by watershed and focuses on what work individual tribes are doing.

In the Snohomish River basin, for example, the report focuses on the Tulalip Tribes’ work. While some progress in restoring habitat has been made, the report said that long-term salmon recovery will be inhibited by an ineffective regulatory framework.

Part of that, Williams said, has to do with the sheer number of jurisdictions that must sign off on every significant project. That slows projects down and undercuts their effectiveness.

“Every time you cross a boundary, whether its a city or a county or a federal property, the rules change,” Williams said.

The Tulalip Tribes are working in a variety of federal and state venues to harmonize the regulatory environment, but that also is a slow process.

Kurt Nelson, the Tulalip Tribes’ environmental division manager, said that it’s not just that various levels of government are preventing restoration projects from being implemented in a timely matter.

“There’s still a lot of habitat degradation occurring, habitat loss occurring over time, and it puts into question whether I think the regulations we have on the books right now are being enforced,” Nelson said.

The report goes on to say that in spite of this, the Snohomish River basin probably has the most potential for rebuilding salmon populations, citing the Tulalips’ work restoring the 354-acre Qwuloolt Estuary to a tidal marsh after decades of diking, and continued work along French Creek, the Pilchuck River and elsewhere in the watershed.

The Snohomish watershed is still home to wild populations of salmon, unlike most rivers farther to the south.

“The Qwuloolt project was a big project so it consumed a lot of our time, a lot of our efforts, a lot of our capacity,” Nelson said.

The Tribes will have to continue to look to identify big projects, but also focus on species such as steelhead and coho salmon in addition to chinook, he said.

The Stillaguamish watershed is believed to have a bleaker future. Populations of Chinook salmon will not recover without major changes at the state and federal levels that strengthen regulations on stream flows, timber harvesting, water quality, agricultural lands and development in the flood plain, the report says.

“The continued decline of salmon populations (and their habitat) in the Stillaguamish is a reflection of a society operating under the status quo of policy direction,” it said.

This is all in spite of the gains the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians has made, including the restoration and planting of 493 acres of riverside habitat and creating or restoring 233 acres of estuary marshland.

Loomis said that only a coordinated effort by multiple levels of government is likely to turn the tide on habitat loss. That includes agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently denied a permit for a controversial oil terminal, NOAA and the local agricultural community working with state agencies and the tribes.

“Everyone needs to be working together to see what the best solution is before issuing permits that are going to damage the shoreline, that are going to take more water out of the rivers,” Loomis said.

The complete report is online at http://geo.nwifc.org/sow.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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