Seattle City Light
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest
Marblemount - A restored ancient salmon spawning habitat on the Skagit River is now being used by a large number of returning wild chum and coho salmon. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists and construction crews completed the restoration of Taylor Channel last year. The 3,000-foot-long groundwater channel is the longest of its kind in Washington state.
The site was identified four years ago using aerial photographs, geological maps and extensive ground surveys. It was buried under silt, trees and other natural debris.
"We reconstructed what was probably the natural condition of the land to create a protected spawning and rearing area for salmon, particularly chum and coho," said Chris Detrick, who oversaw the work. "Other salmon species will use the site," Detrick added, "but chum and coho are most attracted to groundwater-fed channels like these."
The project was carried out in conjunction with Seattle City Light and the U.S. Forest Service. It is the first major salmon habitat enhancement project funded as part of Seattle City Light's licensing agreement. The utility operates three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. Under a mitigation agreement signed in 1991 between the utility and a number of state and federal natural resource agencies, Seattle City Light is spending $1.5 million over approximately 10 years to improve or create fish habitat along the river.
"The long-term health of Skagit River chum and coho salmon depend heavily on the availability of off-channel habitat areas like this one in the upper Skagit River basin," said Seattle City Light fisheries biologist Dave Pflug. "We look forward to future partnerships like this to replace much of the lost salmon habitat."
Restoration of the channel cost $500,000. About half the money was from Seattle City Light, and the remainder paid for by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The channel, believed to be at least a century or two old, is located on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Once owned by a private timber company, the agency purchased the property in the early 90s for fish and wildlife habitat and recreation.
"As managers of the Skagit Wild and Scenic River, restoration of the river channel and its flood plain help us meet the objectives of the Northwest Forest Plan," said Jon Vanderheyden, Mt. Baker District ranger. "We are pleased that this joint project is already showing success as a salmon rearing habitat.”
A team of biologists, engineers and construction personnel assigned to WDFW’s Salmonid Screening, Habitat Enhancement and Restoration (SSHEAR) group carried out design and construction work. The statewide group works specifically on projects to rebuild and enhance the state's native wild salmonid stocks. The SSHEAR group has completed nearly 3 miles of off-channel chum and coho spawning habitat in the Skagit basin and expects to complete 5 miles of groundwater channels in the next 7 to 10 years.
Detrick said that over the years both chum and coho salmon stocks on the Skagit River have been impacted by habitat degradation or loss. This has translated into fewer opportunities for recreational and commercial fishers.
Unlike some other wild salmon species that spawn in a river's major channel, chum and coho salmon prefer to use side channels and groundwater-fed areas, Detrick said. Coho also use small streams and sloughs.
Detrick said chum or coho that spawn in protected areas fed by groundwater have a much better chance of surviving because they are protected from the ravages of winter flooding and low summer stream flows. The peak spawning period for the fish is usually late November and early December.
"Natural groundwater channels, many of which have been lost to development and other land use activities, have proven to be extremely valuable and productive in enhancing salmon populations on the Skagit and on other major rivers," he said.
"The constant, even flow of water at these sites year round tremendously increases the survival rate of the incubating eggs and young fish."