Skagit Watershed Council

Posted: Jun 1, 2005
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos

The 3,100-square mile Skagit River watershed runs for 125 miles from the Cascades of British Columbia, Canada, across the state of Washington, and drains into Puget Sound, 60 miles north of Seattle. The upper half of the watershed is primarily within Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park. The Skagit is the largest drainage that flows into the sound and the third-largest river on the West Coast of the continental United States.

Objective: The Skagit Watershed Council (SWC) is "a community partnership for salmon restoration," dedicated to voluntary protection and restoration measures that foster natural landscape processes that sustain salmon and aquatic resources.

History: The Skagit River has experienced a constant rush of development since white settlers first arrived in the 1850s. Miners worked over the river upstream looking for gold in what later became federal land. Loggers cut old-growth pine and Douglas fir and sent the timber downriver. Along the river delta, railroad companies leveled and filled the landscape to place tracks to carry the logs. Farmers followed the railroad, and diked and drained the land so they could plant on the arable soils of the delta.

The industrious efforts paid off and, today the Skagit Delta is a highly productive farming region, producing everything from tulips to rutabagas. A 2001 study estimated the region generates $262 million in crops and a total of $500 million in economic activity, including recreation. While 700 generational farms utilize 90,000 acres of the lower watershed, there's increasing pressure for residential development, too.

The Skagit River system is productive in another sense: The river has the most prolific population of wild Chinook salmon in Puget Sound. There are also major runs of the four other salmon species - coho, chum, pink and sockeye - and steelhead, bull, and cutthroat trout.

Stranded marshland at the river's delta
USGS/Photo by Eric Grossman
The river's aquatic resources have suffered, however, amid the development of the Pacific coast and the landscape. Ocean fishing has diminished stocks of the sea-run fish. On land, the dikes for agricultural development and flood control have manipulated the drainage. Studies now show that roughly 72 percent of historic tidal marsh habitat in the delta has disappeared since settlement. The decline of the coastal estuary, in particular, has hurt juvenile chinook salmon and is limiting new salmon populations.

The dwindling stocks and the deterioration in essential salmon habitat became front-and-center issues on the Skagit and the entire Puget Sound in 1999, when the federal government listed chinook salmon and bull trout as threatened species through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The state Growth Management Act, which sets growth parameters for counties and requires them to establish boundaries for critical areas - such as natural buffers along salmon streams - was already stressing relations among farmers and salmon advocates like Indian tribes and conservation groups. The ESA intensified those pressures.

On this physical and political landscape, the SWC had emerged in 1997 to focus on salmon restoration through collaboration of the numerous conservation groups, Indian communities, working farmers, and local, state, and federal government agencies already wrestling with the issue. In 1998, the state passed the Salmon Recovery Planning Act to coordinate local habitat restoration efforts within watersheds. The law designated a "lead entity" for each watershed to handle funds and direct recovery, and tapped SWC for that role in the Skagit Basin.

Accomplishments: In the name of consensus, the SWC has shied away from the contention of the Growth Management Act and the ESA, and focused on voluntary restoration projects to build working relationships between traditional adversaries.

"We've been able to put those [issues] aside at the council table because we've been very clear about what the council's about, which is voluntary restoration," says Larry Wasserman, vice president of the SWC's board of directors, and director of environmental services for the Skagit River System Cooperative, a consortium of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle Indian communities.

Over the council's eight-year history, it has grown to 40 member organizations without any desertion in a politically charged region. "We've held the hull together," says Shirley Solomon, the council's chair. "We've not lost a member and we've held to a high standard."

She's referring to the science-based restoration strategy the SWC established in its first year and which it regularly updates. That framework has brought a consistent benchmark of quality restoration projects, which move forward through sponsor groups from the council. Money has come mostly through the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board due to the council's designation as the lead entity for salmon recovery.

The 65 projects through SWC have included restoration of tributary streams, sloughs, and floodplains in the delta and upstream; fish monitoring programs that focus on juvenile salmon, abundance of prey, vegetation and river channel form; acquisition of land and conservation easements; sediment reduction from roads through culvert placement; invasive species management; and feasibility studies and assessments. The council is now working with farmers and trying to focus on management alternatives to restore estuarine habitat by moving and replacing dikes.

Skagit River delta
USGS/Photo by Guy Gelfenbaum
Challenges/constraints: As the SWC concentrates attention on the estuary and delta, collaboration becomes an artful diplomacy among partners because of the equal importance of the area to both agriculture and salmon recovery.

Last year, the council, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land launched the Greater Skagit Delta Initiative, an ecological analysis to target habitat restoration in the lower basin. Initial studies utilized interviews and GIS data to identify the most critical areas for protection and restoration in the delta based on salmon recovery and development pressures on farmland. The conservation groups hoped to use that information to demonstrate the intertwined fates of agriculture and salmon in the Skagit Delta.

But farmers didn't see the initiative as a cooperative venture. "It's a classic example of non-collaboration," says Curtis Johnson, president of the board of directors of the Western Washington Agricultural Association. Johnson, who grows red beet and spinach seed on land his family has farmed since 1898, claims the effort was "100 percent for fish and zero percent for farms." While he and other farmers have worked collaboratively with the Indian tribes and the state of Washington on a ditch maintenance plan to accommodate fish and farm concerns, he thinks the delta initiative failed to achieve any balance or recognize the contribution of agriculture in preserving the Skagit Valley.

Solomon acknowledges that the delta initiative turned out to be more controversial than the conservation partners had anticipated, and they have shelved the effort. After all, there are plenty of other areas where partners can work together. "We're trying to find those small but significant places where we can make great headway," says Solomon, pointing out that watershed restoration doesn't happen overnight.

Among Indian tribes and generational farms, people on the Skagit are in for the long haul. Still, a looming question among many council members is when the group will be ready to tackle the more contentious issues, and whether it can do so without losing its impetus towards salmon restoration.

"We haven't won the battle here by any means," says Bob Rose, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland and a founding member of SWC. "People see the work here as a model for how to approach this."

For more information see:

Skagit Watershed Council

Pacific Coast Watershed Partnership

Shared Strategy for Puget Sound: "Salmon and the Skagit Watershed"

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