Natural restoration

  • John Santana<br>Mill Creek Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 11:59am

Tom Murdoch walked alongside North Creek on a foggy, chilly afternoon, surrounded by tall evergreens and low-lying native foliage, surveying a stream that looks like it did 200 years ago. But appearances are deceiving.

Murdoch’s showing off the handi-work that he and his team of biologists at the Adopt-A-Stream Foundation have done on North Creek, work that they’ve replicated on several streams throughout South Snohomish and North King counties.

One of those efforts are logs strategically placed in North Creek, which to the untrained eye appear to have an effect similar to that of a beaver dam. It looks perfectly natural, but it’s actually the work of human hands, engineered to slow the water’s speed while still allowing fish to move upstream toward spawning areas.

“Anything that cuts off the velocity of the water is a good thing,” Murdoch said. “It slows down erosion and allows gravel to build up, and the water meanders, which slows the flow down.”

The biologists at the non-profit Adopt-A-Stream Foundation are making their way around the area looking at ways to improve and restore stream habitat. Their work takes them away from their offices in McCollum Park and into local communities. Recently, a team went to Lyon Creek in Lake Forest Park to survey the health of that stream.

Their work often takes them door-to-door, visiting those who live or work alongside a stream, seeking permission to survey the property for potential stream pollutants. Staff give residents a checklist of pollution problems and recommended corrective actions. Pollutants can be anything from pet waste to invasive plants to septic system problems.

Biologists also see plenty of instances where lawns go right up to the stream’s edge, a condition that could raise a stream’s temperature as well as lead to runoff of yard chemicals.

The effort is part of a grassroots effort to get local communities involved in the health of local streams. In fact, Murdoch says, most of the foundation’s work is done with individual landowners, more so than local and county governments.

As part of their efforts, Adopt-A-Stream staff can, in some cases, seek grants to help homeowners with the costs of fixing some problems. In addition, staff can even provide labor to help homeowners, such as in cases of restoring natural vegetation alongside a stream. In all cases, a resident’s interest in maintaining a view of a stream is taken into account.

“We call it ‘Extreme Backyard Makeover,’” Murdoch said. “We work with a property owner to fix the problem.

“We’ve been able to show the merits of a natural plant landscape to many homeowners,” he said.

Staff also advise homeowners on small ways to help a stream, such as by not cleaning up fallen leaves within a few feet of a stream bank. The reason? The leaves will tumble into the stream and provide food for microorganisms, which is the basis of the stream’s food chain.

The overall efforts are not only aimed at restoring habitat for salmon, but for all sorts of freshwater marine life, from trout to insects to mussels and clams. The latter two freshwater mollusks are what biologists call an “indicator species,” meaning that they can only live in sound ecological habitats.

“They’ve almost disappeared from North Creek,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch says crews have done approximately 70 habitat restoration projects, ranging from simple plantings to bridge construction and even culvert replacement.

“We’ve seen several instances where we’ve found problems with culvert pipes that are barriers to fish migration,” he said.

Right now, crews are focusing their efforts on four stream systems in South Snohomish and North King counties: McAleer and Lyon creeks, which both flow out of Lake Ballinger to Lake Washington; North Creek; and Little Bear Creek.

The work covers not only the streams, but their entire watersheds, an area of land that a stream drains or “sheds” water into a stream or river. For example, the North Creek watershed through the Mill Creek and Bothell areas is 10 miles long and three miles wide.

So far, foundation staff has been up against a variety of obstacles, mostly coming from development and the loss of wetlands and forests. North Creek’s head waters begin at the Everett Mall. From there, the creek flows south through the growing Mill Creek and Bothell areas before flowing into the Sammamish River.

As an example, Murdoch cites a government estimate that shows there are more than 10,000 storm drains leading into North Creek from throughout its watershed. Those storm drains bring everything from motor oil to lawn fertilizer to dirt, often at speeds that can cause stream bank erosion.

“Erosion is a big problem,” Murdoch said. “Sediment can hamper the breathing of salmon fry and they can suffocate. Most people don’t think of sediment as a pollutant, but it’s just as dangerous as oil.”

While their work is ongoing, and Murdoch is proud of the efforts he and his staff have made in restoring stream habitat, he acknowledges that more work must be done. He uses North Creek as an example.

“We’re not solving North Creek’s problems. It’s like we’re treating a patient who has pneumonia with orange juice and aspirin.”

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