Cleaning up the Samish

I wrote in this column last week that the Samish River's habitat and water quality had been degraded by sedimentation, elevated temperature, fecal contamination, and alteration and loss of riparian area. Earlier this week I saw evidence of all of that and more.


Many small tributaries flow into the 31-mile-long Samish. They sometimes go dry, but nearly all are capable of providing spawning and rearing habitat for fish. Most, if not all, have been polluted, mainly by poor farming practices and poorly designed or maintained on-site septic systems. Thomas Creek is one of these.

As a boy, I recall Thomas Creek as a brook that tumbled downhill, clear and cold, through rural woods. I remember wading in it, fishing in it, drinking from it. No one would dare drink from it now. Muddy and barely moving, it looks like sewer water in a ditch.

There are state and federal laws aplenty to protect water quality in Washington, but it's apparent that little effort has been spent enforcing them. State law mandates regular inspection of all on-site septic systems, but inspections and enforcement obviously have been lacking.

The Samish has more problems than pollution. Some landowners have cleared vegetation to the very edge of streams. Without protective cover from the sun, water temperatures rise, exceeding the tolerance of native fish.

Without a buffer, sedimentation flushes into creeks, spoiling spawning areas. On Thomas Creek, invasive plants such as canary reed grass and blackberry vines have replaced the native vegetation to the detriment of fish habitat.

The general neglect of fish habitats throughout the Samish River watershed has continued for decades, even as runs of Pacific Sound chinook salmon and Puget Sound steelhead diminished to the point of being listed as threatened. Yet, efforts now being made to improve water quality and fish habitat in Skagit County give me hope.

The day after seeing Thomas Creek, I talked to Christine Woodward, with the Samish Indian Nation's Department of Natural Resources. The tribe is concerned about water quality, as well as Japanese knotweed, an invasive Asian weed that infests the Samish drainage. Woodward said the tribe is helping to clean up and restore Thomas Creek.

"We're getting our neighbors involved, and that's one of the really big steps," she said.

As for the knotweed, Woodward said the only known way to eradicate it is by spraying, which is in the works.
Driving around Skagit County, at dozens of places where roads cross or run alongside streams, I saw signs: "Yours to Protect," "Flows to Samish Bay." I noticed recently installed latrines at public-access locations along the Samish, an effort to help eliminate human waste as a pollution source.

Surfing the Net, I found more reason to be hopeful. In the past, Skagit County has been slow to adopt zoning ordinances and management plans designed to assure good water quality. The county now appears to be giving water quality, fish habitat and enforcement of existing laws and ordinances a higher priority.

High fecal coliform counts, mainly caused by the Samish River, have led to repeated closures of the commercial and recreational shellfish harvests in Samish Bay. In 2009, the Washington Department of Ecology spearheaded the Clean Samish Initiative, a collaboration of more than 20 federal, state and local government agencies, tribes and local organizations to solve this problem. In 2010, the EPA awarded the Clean Samish Initiative a $960,000 grant to improve water quality in the Samish Basin through a Pollution Identification and Correction program, which Skagit County has implemented.

Early this year, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she wants the Samish basin cleaned up by September 2012. In response, state and local officials recently released a plan for more inspections and enforcement on all fronts, including septic tanks, livestock operations, small hobby farms, dairies and others, as well as more education and help for landowners.

It has become easier to be one of the good guys. The Skagit Conservation District provides free technical assisance and farm planning to farms of all sizes. Skagit County has a low-interest loan program for homeowners who need a loan for a failing septic system. The state Dept. of Ecology gave Skagit County a $43,700 grant for restoring riparian vegetation and for protective fencing along the stream banks. Volunteers are helping to protect and restore habitat.

The Samish River watershed is far from having good water quality and fish habitat, but there's hope. Conservationist Aldo Leopold once said that the oldest task in human history is to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. The task goes on.

Les Palmer is spending his first winter as a snowbird in Bellingham, Wash. He can be reached at