By the eight decades of record, today is the day that the Skykomish River begins to rise again.
After falling to its summer low by early September and generally holding that mark through this month’s first couple days, the river east of Everett heads the other direction Oct. 3 as fall’s first freshets gently shower the dust off the Cascades — and then hose the orange and yellow maple leaves off the trees along the highway over Stevens Pass.
Midmonth drives back from deer camp can seem like a trip between two vastly different worlds.
Since 1928 that’s typically what the river’s done.
Every year is different, of course — and 2012 is proving to be quite different.
Since hitting 12,000 cfs in those hot, thunderous, fishy days after the Fourth, a graph of the Sky’s flow shows it going downhill as inexorably as the river itself slices through Boulder Drop and the old moraine of the Great Glacier at Reiter Ponds, and then past the Groeneveld’s dairy outside Sultan and the rest of southern Snohomish County’s flatlands.
It’s remarkable for a number of reasons, one being that there are always a handful of spikes in the graph through late summer as rains quickly move through, and then massive ones later in fall as the real storms hit.
But with only one blip in early September when Seattle’s nearly 50-day rainless streak was snapped, the Sky now runs at a bony 388 cfs, as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey station just below the railroad bridge outside Gold Bar.
Above there the river is neither dammed nor drawn down for irrigation.
If this were a humpy year, I’d wade the river below Tualco and murder the salmon along the riprap 200 yards downstream of where the crowd otherwise gathers.
But it’s an even year — and an increasingly odd one.
As a native Washingtonian, one who has lived nearly all of his life within 45 minutes or less of the Sky, I know that late summer and early fall can be dry, but this year’s extended parching of the region is unusual.
Were it not for another wet late winter, spring and early summer, the river would be lower still.
Conditions can’t be good in all those small creeks and sloughs that otherwise provide habitat for the river’s wild young Chinook, coho and steelhead, species with extended inriver rearing life histories.
A couple years ago a biologist pointed that out to me.
“There’s been a change in summer flows,” asserted WDFW’s Brett Barkdull for an April 2010 article on the woes of Puget Sound steelhead in our print magazine. “Less water, less habitat. If a stream’s dry, it doesn’t provide much habitat for parr.”
But besides a rain dance what can you do about it?
Three-eighty-eight appears to be the lowest the Sky has ever been on Oct. 3 — the standing record, if I’m reading the USGS data correctly, is 398 cfs, back in the first full fall of the Great Depression. A federal stream surveyor notes that the data is provisional.
In September 2007 the river came within a day or two of 300 before rising to 7,000 cfs by this time in early October.
If current trends keep up — and there’s no sign they won’t — it could match that mark by midmonth.
That forecast looks great to the sungold tomato farmer part of me — but worries the hunter-gatherer side.
Massive swaths of Washington and Oregon have been closed to deer hunters because of fire danger, and field reports from fellow Northwest sportsmen indicate extraordinarily dry ground.
“Forest conditions going into the general hunt … are the most challenging I’ve observed since the late ’80s,” a hardcore hunter reported to me on Monday after a little weekend walk in the woods. “Tinder dry and quiet. Quiet, that is, if one happens to be sitting still.”
It’s not all that’s getting quiet. From the Sky to the Hoh, Naselle to the Sauk, streams are gurgling less and less too.
The rains will come. They always do.
But for now the Skykomish is quietly going downhill.
Editor’s note: After we posted this blog, the USGS adjusted streamflows on the Sky at Gold Bar upwards by about 100 cfs. Also, the Columbia Basin Bulletin posted this related news item, Northwest Stream Study Shows High Temp/Low Flow Period Closer In Time, Stresses Salmonids