Viewpoints: We can bring salmon back to urban North Creek

Viewpoints: We can bring salmon back to urban North Creek

We can’t easily replant a forest, but we can mirror the forest effects that support fish and wildlife.

By Tom Murdoch / For The Herald

North Creek flows from south Everett about 11 miles downstream past Mill Creek and the University of Washington’s Bothell campus, into the Sammamish River and Lake Washington. It drains a watershed of 30 square miles.

My first observation of North Creek salmon was in fall of 1978. I was standing next to the swimming pool in Snohomish County’s McCollum Park, approximately 2 miles downstream from the creek’s headwaters located north of Everett Mall Way. Then, as a lot of old-timers have been known to say, “the salmon were so thick that you could walk across their backs.”

In 1978, North Creek waters flowed all year long from top to bottom. The stream also was home to an abundant and diverse population of aquatic insects, essential food for juvenile salmon that spend six months to a year in the creek before migrating to the Puget Sound. North Creek was brimming with aquatic life!

Flip the switch forward 41 years. The North Creek chinook, coho, sockeye and steelhead run is barely hanging on. By 2019, most of the forests in the surrounding watershed have been converted to rooftops, parking lots and roads.

Rainfall now flows into thousands of storm drains that lead to North Creek instead of seeping into the ground recharging the underlying aquifer. Salmon habitat in the upper 20 percent of the stream has been largely scoured away by stormwater runoff.

This May 15, North Creek went completely dry behind the McCollum Park swimming pool; the earliest ever observed. Except for a few isolated pools, the upper 2.5 miles of this 11-mile-long stream stayed dry until the big Sept. 7 thunderstorm and following rainfall.

You’re probably thinking, “They should do something about this!” Well “they” has to include you. Need some ideas?

Just downstream from the McCollum Park swimming pool is the Adopt A Stream Foundation’s Northwest Stream Center. There, North Creek still flows all summer. Why?

At the Stream Center, the riparian zone — the area of vegetation adjacent to a stream that affects its ecological health — extends several hundred feet on both sides of the creek. Tall trees and underlying shrubs provide shade that keep the air temperature cool and, in turn, keep North Creek cool as well. Trees and branches fall into the stream helping slow stream velocity, and provide resting and hiding places for fish.

That riparian vegetation also intercepts pollutants from the surrounding watershed and provides habitat for a range of wildlife. Several associated wetlands that stored rainfall last winter and spring slowly released that water to North Creek this summer.

Further downstream, Snohomish County and the City of Mill Creek teamed up to purchase a large riparian area: North Creek Regional Park. The City of Bothell teamed with Snohomish County to purchase more riparian area (Centennial Park) and, recently, acquired a large parcel called the North Creek Forest. And, UW-Bothell restored degraded wetlands at the downstream end of North Creek.

However, upstream of the McCollum Park swimming pool, there is no going back to the old growth forest that used to surround North Creek. A 300-foot wide riparian zone that research indicates is necessary for a self-sustaining salmon run is not going to magically re-appear.

But many lost ecological functions can be replaced if the riparian zone can’t. And you can make it happen!

• Connect roof downspouts to rain barrels linked into rain gardens that help recharge the groundwater system.

• Change homeowner association rules requiring green lawns to, instead, require native plant landscapes and not allow use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

• Use low-impact designs for all new construction.

• Plant open spaces with trees.

• Renew old parking lots, driveways, and sidewalks with permeable surfaces.

• Retrofit old storm drains with filters.

Visit the Northwest Stream Center and see a green roof connected to rain barrels and a rain garden, permeable walkways that drain into the ground, and aesthetically pleasing native plant landscapes. You can also see a 3-acre wetland that was resurrected from a gravel parking lot; it can be done!

Want help? City of Everett residents can get rain-barrel and rain garden assistance (425-257-8992) and help with stormwater problems from the Snohomish Conservation District (425-377-7012). Downstream residents can get technical assistance from Snohomish County, Mill Creek, and Bothell public works department.

OK. Get moving. Take actions necessary to bring back North Creek’s salmon. While you’re at it, don’t forget the big picture. Make sure to tell your local government representative not to go backward, as the federal Environmental Protection Agency has recently done; tell your representatives to strengthen, not weaken, stream and wetland protection rules. Also, ask your elected officials to team up with Snohomish County’s Conservation Futures Fund to buy more undeveloped land in the North Creek watershed.

Then, you can tell your friends and neighbors that you not only took actions benefiting North Creek salmon, but you helped out the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident killer whales at the same time. You became part of the solution; a very good thing!

Tom Murdoch is the director of the Adopt A Stream Foundation ( and co-author of the “Streamkeepers Field Guide: Watershed Inventory and Stream Monitoring Methods.” Call the Adopt A Stream Foundation at 425-316-8592.

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