Washington Conservation Corps Replenishing Bellingham’s Waterways Since 1999
by Giovanni Roverso
Like their shoreline neighbors at the heart of the Salish Sea, Whatcom residents are fortunate to live in an iconic region with a taste of the ocean, mountain views and sweeping rainforests, accompanied by a temperate climate.
Midway between the metropoles of Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., Bellingham isn’t quite as secluded as it used to be. The city estimates it will have to accommodate between 1,000 and 1,500 new residents every year. Increasing that capacity while conserving the environment requires careful consideration of any downstream effects.
Conservation efforts aren’t just about making accommodations for new construction though. It’s also about restoration work that includes both regular maintenance and reversing damage done by poor planning in previous generations.
Local government leads the way for an array of environmental projects, but a greater vision is at play. This vision comes to fruition by coordinating with neighbors, environmental organizations and agencies.
But local resources would be spread thin if it weren’t for the helping hands of Washington Conservation Corps members ready to get down and dirty.
It was during a moment of great ecological distress that the Conservation Corps first arrived on the scene to help restore Whatcom Creek with native plants after the Olympic Pipeline leaked gasoline and exploded in 1999. Currently, two crews work with Bellingham, while one works with the county and the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.
The city’s new partnership with the Conservation Corps made the city’s habitat restoration program possible, said Sara Brooke Benjamin, the city’s environmental restoration and monitoring program coordinator.
Now Bellingham crews work on restoration properties covering over 175 acres, plus Lake Whatcom. Their main focus is on freshwater riparian corridors, or streams with a vegetation buffer. These buffers are critically important to the ecosystem and provide shade, filter groundwater and provide wildlife habitat.
Crews work on all three major creeks in the city, Whatcom, Padden and Squalicum, on a near-continual basis throughout the year.
“The bulk of our work is just kind of bouncing around from site to site and performing maintenance at those sites,” Paul Argites, supervisor of one of the city Conservation Corps crews, said.
In spring and summer, crews remove invasive plants, and, in fall and winter, they fill in the gaps with native species. But corps staff also survey salmon populations every other year and help with special projects. The most recent such project involved rerouting a mile of Squalicum Creek around Interstate Highway 5.
Work on the first half of the project led to Bellingham being awarded 2016 Public Works Project of the Year by the American Public Works Association.
But why is this kind of work so important?
A Haunting Legacy
Settlers in the old West were more interested in conquering the land than living in harmony with it. In the last century and a half, an unsustainable exploitation of natural resources led the way for rapid development, but this took its toll on the Salish Sea bioregion.
Once thriving for centuries under indigenous stewardship, native fish populations floundered due to polluted waterways, river diversions and dams, according to the Endangered Species Coalition.
Salmon are a critical part of an extensive food chain. They are the primary source of food for orcas and an invaluable resource to Coast Salish people. But they, and other salmonids like steelhead trout, are particularly sensitive to warm and polluted water. Invasive fish were also introduced into freshwater bodies without considering what effect they would have on native species.
Fish stocks couldn’t replenish fast enough as humans degraded natural waterways, damming rivers and polluting the water, eventually causing tens of thousands of fishing-related jobs to disappear, the coalition states. In 1992, more than a hundred West Coast salmon runs — subspecies adapted to specific rivers and streams — were reported as having gone extinct, with more at risk.
Present day Chinook, coho and steelhead from the Salish Sea are 10 times less likely to survive in marine waters compared to 30 years ago. That’s significantly less than their Pacific coast counterparts, according to the Marine Survival Project.
Restoring the fish stocks could bring back billions of dollars to the region’s economies, among other purely ecological benefits, the Endangered Species Coalition states.
The cause has been bolstered by several actions and organized efforts over the years, including:
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was created in 1974 when tribes’ fishing rights were reaffirmed in court. Tribes became comanagers with the state of Washington and were guaranteed access to an equal share of salmon.
Thanks to the 1987 Clean Water Act, the EPA began taking water quality more seriously. With it came the National Estuary Program, which identified the health of the Puget Sound as critical to the environmental and economic well-being of the country.
In response to the collapse of the fishing and timber industries, Washington established the Washington Conservation Corps in 1983. Its goal was to create “boots on the ground” conservation jobs for young adults and military veterans across the state.
In 1994, the Corporation for National and Community Service adopted the Washington Conservation Corps under its AmeriCorps program, bolstering it with federal funding and support. The CNCS, a federal agency promoting community improvement through service and volunteerism, took on the AmeriCorps’ name in September 2020. This bolstered the corps with federal funding and made crews available for nationwide disaster response, for example.
In 2007, the Washington state Legislature formed an agency called the Puget Sound Partnership. Its infrastructure supports its partners through promotion and monitoring of investments, public policy and research efforts aimed at restoring and protecting the sound.
A full ecosystem recovery, as much as it is possible, can only come about through a persistent effort over time, one restoration project at a time.
Restoring Bellingham’s Creeks
“It took 100 years to decimate salmon populations. It’s going to take 100 years to bring them back,” Analiese Burns said during a virtual tour and Q&A of the Squalicum Creek reroute on September 14, 2020.
Burns, the habitat and restoration manager with the Natural Resources Division of Bellingham Public Works, said she was cautiously optimistic with how the restoration was going.
The health of the Salish Sea depends in part on the health of the rivers and streams that feed into it.
But time wasn’t kind to significant portions of Bellingham’s creeks, which, since the 1800s, were gradually restricted and realigned. Old culverts routing water under roads were not often designed to accommodate fish, especially during dry seasons. Portions of Bellingham’s creeks were even funneled into long dark tunnels, as happened to a large portion of Padden Creek (1), for example.
The Slow Rebirth of Squalicum Creek
Historically, Squalicum Creek provided 32 miles of salmonid habitat, including Chinook and steelhead which are officially endangered. The city has been gradually improving Squalicum Creek as fish and wildlife habitat over the last 20 years.
The restoration of Willow Spring (2), in Squalicum Creek Park where a cement plant used to be, created new habitat that salmonids can access easily in the lower part of the creek. Most of the work was done in 2010. There, the city opened up an underground channel to turn it into livable habitat in a process called “daylighting.”
While Conservation Corps crews do a lot of the revegetation, they help catch and count fish periodically and relocate fish during deep restoration work. To help with planting for big projects, more help comes from the Bellingham Parks Volunteer Program, the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Transition Whatcom, and REI crews. Volunteers are usually brought together for projects a couple times a year, Benjamin said.
The Willow Spring project was only completed in 2018 after successful property negotiations. This allowed the city to finally get rid of a culvert under old railroad property that connected the spring to the creek, thus eliminating one final fish barrier.
Upstream from there, north of Sunset Drive, I-5 crosses Squalicum Creek.
Pits on Either Side of I-5
Construction companies in need of gravel during I-5’s construction in the late 50s dug it out of pits on either side of the highway which eventually turned into ponds.
“And at some point,” Benjamin said, “somebody had a brilliant idea to actually route the creek through those ponds. And it wasn’t always in those ponds.”
These gravel pits became Heron Pond, or Bug Lake, to the west of I-5, and Sunset Pond, upstream to the east.
Not only did this warm up the creek, in turn decreasing the amount of dissolved oxygen in its water, but local fishermen “augmented” the ponds with invasive fish species that are fun to fish for, Benjamin said.
In 1998, a Whatcom Watch contributor documented (3) researchers studying coho in Squalicum Creek’s two ponds who found that many juvenile salmon were not making it to adulthood. See: http://www.whatcomwatch.org/old_issues/v7i8.html. It eventually became more and more clear that invasive fish species were significantly impacting juvenile salmon along with the other water quality problems. This called for a restoration.
Finally, in 2015, the city was able to start a four-phase project to reroute the creek around the ponds.
First Two Phases
The first two phases, completed over the summer, involved making a new creek bed along the Bay to Baker trail (4) which feeds into Bug Lake from the north, instead of from the south.
The city routed the new creek passage under I-5 via a new fish-friendly, open-top three-sided box culvert. Then the channel was snaked over to James Street, east of the highway, and under a new bridge. Workers then continued snaking the new creek bed eastward north of Sunset Pond before rejoining it with the old creek. The creek was then cut off from Sunset Pond, which was left intact.
Work was also done during the first two phases to build a flood control berm near the intersection of Birchwood Avenue and Squalicum Parkway just north of Bug Lake, according to Public Works Project Engineer Craig Mueller.
This helped prepare the area for a new road connecting Orchard Drive (5) to Birchwood Avenue. The road will lie between the Bay to Baker Trail and the creek for the most part. The trail will remain closed for a period of the road construction which will begin in early 2021 and last roughly one year, Mueller said.
Phases Three and Four
The second half of the creek re-route (phases 3 and 4) was completed between June and October, 2020, mostly on track despite Covid-19 pandemic-related challenges.
This part of the project focused on the creek to the west of the highway. One portion of Squalicum Creek was rerouted south of property owned by Plastic Surgery Bellingham. This required building a new fish-friendly culvert under Squalicum Parkway.
Bug Lake was drained and filled in to become a wetland like it used to be. This area will still let some water pass through to the old culvert, especially overflow in rainy seasons. But the main channel was rerouted south where the historic stream bed had been. This location also has the advantage of attracting more groundwater sources which help cool the creek even more.
Benjamin said thousands of brown and red bullhead catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and pumpkinseed and bluegill sunfish were caught throughout the re-route process.
Then, construction crews filled most of the pond in so it could be turned back into a wetland. The wetland will not only help cool the water once trees there grow tall, but it will help lower the amount of fecal coliform bacteria in the creek which is bad for salmonids, too.
Conservation Corps crews will keep revegetating the new creek banks and the wetlands around old Bug Lake into February 2021.
Year after year, the corps works to renew Washington’s waterways, greenways and infrastructure. Members can only serve for two years before they move on, but they will take away the tangible experience they get in the process.
People of the WCC
The Washington Conservation Corps has left its mark in Bellingham and Whatcom County and that’s thanks to its members, their supervisors and coordinators.
Originally from Northern California, Ryan Robie had just finished up with an undergraduate degree in environmental science in Oregon. He ended up in Bellingham out of sheer luck and timing, he said. There was a job opening and Robie moved to Bellingham in 2016 for seasonal work with the city’s aquatic invasive species program.
He was on the lookout for something to do next when he saw a little Washington Conservation Corps flier posted up on the wall in the Natural Resources Department building. He saw it was an AmeriCorps program and decided to give it a go. He had dismissed AmeriCorps when he heard of it in college from a recruiter, but it felt familiar.
Robie learned the ropes while working on exciting projects, he said, and became Argites’ assistant crew supervisor in his second year.
He remembered counting fish in smolt (juvenile salmon) traps in 2018 in a region of Padden Creek that the city finished rerouting in 2015. (6)
“We were surprised at just the sheer volume of fish that we encountered, and also the size of some of the fish that we found,” he said. “I think there was at least one, just huge, steelhead.”
The Washington Conservation Corps encourages its members to grow through various formative experiences and this is just as true with coordinators and supervisors.
Argites said challenges with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 meant his crew had to focus on doing online training, such as FEMA certifications, until the Conservation Corps had new safety policies in place. For two weeks during that time, Argites joined about 20 other supervisors building Covid-19 test kits for the Department of Health in Tumwater, Washington.
The majority of Washington Conservation Corps crew members get brought on in October every year. Argites said training new members has gone well so far with a mix of Zoom and field training. Social distancing and masks are used, and people sanitize tools if they have to share them.
Argites himself was hired on in 2015 by Nick Saling, the North Puget Sound regional coordinator. Saling supervised and mentored him. Saling himself collaborated on formalizing the mentorship program based on feedback from crew supervisors. The program was several years in the making.
Saling disappeared during a personal boating trip near Lummi Island in late 2019. The Washington Conservation Corps named the mentorship program after him in 2020 to honor his legacy and dedication, Laura Schlabach, communications and individual placement coordinator said.
“Nick was just always focused on people and building relationships, something I really admired about him,” Argites said.
AmeriCorps is also working to bring its various programs across the nation closer together. It introduced a new logo in September 2020, which will be integrated across all of its programs.
Robie moved on to Washington Campus Compact (7), an AmeriCorps VISTA program, hiring members who develop community-enhancing projects.
Being a national program, it doesn’t pay nearly as well. But despite the pay gap, the work is extremely fulfilling he said, while moving him toward a career in civic engagement and ecological restoration.
“I would encourage anyone who can to give national service a shot,” he said. “Odds are there’s an AmeriCorps program out there that will fit your interests/hopes.”
Giovanni A. Roverso is an Italian-American visual journalism major at Western Washington University. Portfolio and blog at www.giovanniroverso.com.