On Rivers, ‘Hallways’ And Rooms For Salmon To Grow

It was a tale of two rivers growing up.

OK, three, since we lived for several years just off the banks of the Sultan, a tributary of the Skykomish. Born in the mountains and cutting through canyons, they’ve always symbolized true rivers in my mind.

The other was the Sammamish, which in one section between Woodinville and Redmond runs as straight and true as any of my fishing rods.

Guess which one of those streams is the least natural and fish-friendly?

THE SAMMAMISH RIVER/SLOUGH ON A FOGGY DAY NEAR WOODINVILLE. (FENIXFYRE, WIKIMEDIA)

Yes, I’ve cast a line in “the slough” and actually caught stuff.

Pikeminnows at the mouth of Little Bear Creek during my teens with Dad while trying to catch rumored large rainbows.

Big, bacon-biting crawdads below the railroad bridge to the old DeYoung Feed Mill.

A huge horkin’ smallie and cutthroat trout below the lake in my 20s.

But shallow, weedy and heated by the summer sun, good fish habitat the Sammamish is not.

Especially that curveless north-south-bearing 1-plus-mile stretch alongside the turf and Christmas tree farms by the former Redhook Brewery.

A SCREENGRAB FROM GOOGLE MAPS SHOWS A STRAIGHT, DREDGED STRETCH OF THE SAMMAMISH RIVER BETWEEN WOODINVILLE AND REDMOND. (GOOGLE MAPS)

It can be hard to explain to folks what’s wrong with that picture, but I found a great quote in a story about the recent closure of Blewett Pass.

The early September project allowed WSDOT and its contractors to put in new fish passage structures in areas a creek had been straightened for Highway 97.

“The streams that we’re trying to restore are like a house that’s made just of hallways,” Scott Nicolai, a habitat biologist with the Yakama Nation, told reporter Eilis O’Neil.

“Imagine walking into a house and there are no bedrooms, no kitchens, no bathrooms,” Nicolai said. “And that is what a lot of our streams look like today. They’re very straight—only one wet spot along the bottom of the floodplain.”

At one time the Sammamish River was a winding 30-mile-long wetland complex between Lakes Sammamish and Washington.

But between the lowering of the latter in the early 1900s and then a 1964 Army Corps of Engineers straightening project, it shrank to just 13 miles long.

That worked pretty well for farming the fertile soils and funneling off floodwaters — the hallway effect — but didn’t leave much room for fish to just chillax and scarf down bugs and whatnot.

An announcer in an old-time film clip dramatizing the famous boat races on the slough inadvertently made a great point about its diminished value as habitat: “It has about enough water in spots to accommodate a dozen minnows comfortably.”

But now more space for fish is coming online in the system, thanks to a recently completed restoration project in Bothell.

A CITY OF BOTHELL MAP SHOWS THE LOCATION OF THE SIDE CHANNEL AND HABITAT RESTORATION PROJECT, WHICH IS JUST ACROSS THE WOODEN BRIDGE FROM THE PARK AT BOTHELL LANDING. (BOTHELL)

An 1,100-foot-long side channel of the Sammamish at Bothell is now providing quarters, galley, game room and outhouses for young wild Chinook and coho, as well as cutthroat and any remnant steelhead.

It’s not precisely clear how highly Lake Washington basin fall kings rate in terms of killer whale forage, but I think with how key the river systems to the immediate north and south are for the struggling southern residents, it’s safe to say this was probably money fortuitously spent by the King Conservation District and state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.

Elsewhere in the county, a 700-foot-long constructed reach on the Green-Duwamish between Kent and Auburn known as Riverview was found to hold way more young kings and across all stream flows than four other surveyed stretches.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all in favor of a big increase in hatchery Chinook production where it makes the most sense.

Projects like this and others — which I’m also totally in favor of (here’s my own idea) — will take time to produce real results for salmon and orcas.

But here’s to remodeling rivers to make them more complete homes for fish in the meanwhile.

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