San Juan County’s Salmon | Part I: Cascade Creek

by Toby Cooper

Sounder contributor

The bridge at Buck Bay was packed with kids, their boisterous laughter rolling up and over the hill to Sandy Taylor’s house. Alerted by the sound of children confronted with something shattering to their tenuous composure, Taylor wandered down to the bridge and confirmed what he had only dared to hope: Cascade Creek was brimming with fish: big, sleek, spectacular fish known the world over as salmon.

“It’s amazing to see these fish fighting for survival,” said Taylor, whose land is so integrated with the Cascade Creek corridor he had to grant an easement for the new Point Lawrence Road bridge to be built. “When I saw my first run, it sent shivers up my spine.”

His property is bounded by the creek. He knows its moods, listens to its rushing waters in the night and marvels at the diversity of life it supports. When Cascade Creek floods, it floods part of Taylor’s land. And for at least 10 years, his home has been ground zero for an integrated campaign to bring natural fall spawning runs of Coho salmon back to Orcas Island.

In his efforts, Taylor is far from alone. His energy has been contagious, inducing others to share a common thread of commitment, hope and passion for the singular goal of bringing San Juan County’s salmon back to safe population levels.

For example, the wide concrete bridge near Taylor’s home is designed to allow fish to pass freely beneath Point Lawrence Road. It was not always so. When he purchased his land, the creek passed under the road through an aging, inadequate culvert. By late 2012, a hard rain finally claimed the culvert; gravel and debris clogged the structure, floodwaters overtopped the road, and Taylor knew it was time to act.

“The broken culvert became an impenetrable barrier to fish,” he said, recalling how his heart sank at the sight. “Many people came together. We all knew it would be expensive — a million dollars or more — to build a truly fish-friendly structure.”

Thankfully, the county listened, putting up $500,000 in road funds and applying for $500,000 more in Salmon Recovery Funds from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the outlook for successful runs in Cascade Creek improved forever.

Salmon are folded deeply into Pacific Northwest life. Commercial and recreational fishing in the Northwest is a multi-billion-dollar industry, according to industry sources. But numbers alone fail to denote the lofty placement salmon enjoy on the artistic, cultural, emotional and nutritional platforms of our society — and even more so on those of Washington’s Tribes and the First Nations of British Columbia.

However, the reverence we hold for salmon is overshadowed by a stark reality: some species are disappearing from the face of the Earth.

Starting in the early 1970s, salmon began a decline that continues to this day. Some species are down 90 percent. To apply an economic metric, if the populations of Coho and endangered Chinook were today at their 1970 levels, the suite of economic benefits would easily triple.

But rescuing salmon from extinction is indelibly tied to first saving the waters in which salmon spawn. San Juan County’s government, countless citizens and several key non-profits are committed to saving salmon locally, beginning in, but not limited to, Olga’s Cascade Creek. But is this a battle we can win? And if we are victorious here in San Juan County, will it matter against the backdrop of regional salmon issues that dwarf our own?

To save a river, start with the land. Peter Guillozet is the steward of the San Juan County Land Bank’s Orcas holdings that include Coho Preserve, the forested 24-acre tract that embraces lower Cascade Creek where salmon come in from the sea.

Guillozet understands that the principal causes of salmon decline are “habitat loss, habitat loss and habitat loss.” Throughout much of the fast-growing Pacific Northwest, streamside development, logging, agriculture and erosion have drastically reduced the capacity for many streams to support salmon. But here on Orcas, the Land Bank has given the fish a leg up.

“At Coho Preserve, we only own a small portion of the watershed,” says Guillozet, who follows in the footsteps of another salmon advocate at Coho Preserve, Ruthie Dougherty. “And what we do own is only on the West side, with private landowners like Sandy Taylor on the East.”

Upstream miles are mostly owned by Moran State Park, all the way to the creek’s headwaters at Mountain Lake. Fortunately, the Land Bank’s open space mandate dovetails exactly with what salmon need: an unscarred watershed with mature forest cover extending to the water’s edge, all helping to provide year-round flows of clear, cold water.

To overcome the Land Bank’s built-in limitations, Guillozet has turned to networking. He extends his reach by cultivating relationships with two other key stakeholders: Moran State Park, which controls the volume of water allowed to drain from Mountain Lake and Rosario Resort, which owns rights to a diversion of a portion of the Cascade Creek flows.

“What is unique about Cascade Creek is that most of the watershed is protected,” says Guillozet. “There is very little pollution. The key is maintaining year-round flows.”

But maintaining flows turns out to be more art than science, and to unlock the kind of art Coho salmon actually need, Guillozet has turned to one of the best available scientists in San Juan County: consulting fish biologist Jenny De Groot.

Earning her graduate degree in fisheries from U.B.C., De Groot did not plan on becoming a water policy power broker, quarterbacking deals for priority releases of diversion rights. But then, at the time, she had yet to meet Guillozet, Taylor and later, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Water Rights Biologist Steve Boessow.

“We were fortunate to partner with Steve at WDFW to do a 2018 ‘water budget analysis,’” says De Groot. “The purpose was to assess the adequacy of water for fish, and we found there was not, in fact, enough water at key times of year to support the fish.”

The study helped to shape an important strategy for keeping the creek flowing through months of dry weather. Almost any day in the life of De Groot may be fraught with uncertainty. If during one of her regular surveys of the creek she determines that flows are low enough to impart risk to the fish, she contacts Washington’s Department of Ecology, which regulates the situation under their “Trust Water Rights” program.

“DOE calls the holders of diversion rights,” said De Groot. “If DOE obtains permission for a release, paperwork follows and eventually Moran State Park is authorized to let more water out of Mountain Lake. But then, a park employee has to get in a truck and go physically turn a valve.”

Alternatively, she might call one of the other rights-holders: Olga Water, Doe Bay Water, Rosario Resort or even citizen rights-holders. All have the ability to donate water voluntarily, and they can contact Moran State Park directly, bypassing DOE.

As “quarterback,” De Groot has to weigh the creek’s measured water flows with her knowledge of the spiraling variables — how long it takes DOE to act, how long for the paperwork and ultimately how long it takes for flows to come down from Mountain Lake to where the salmon are — thus the “art” sleeve of “art vs. science.” According to De Groot, “It can take days.”

Already earlier this year, there was a near-catastrophe when Jenny discovered fish showing behavioral stress as the creek ran low. Rosario readily agreed to donate a portion of their diversion, but Rosario’s legal counsel, needed for signoff, was on vacation. DOE persisted, reaching Rosario’s owners who approved the transaction. But then, alas, the Moran State Park employee with the keys to the valve was “off-island.” Ultimately, a fish-kill was narrowly averted.

“There needs to be a better system,” said De Groot. For example, she would like to see the emergence of a “brokered” long-term solution between Rosario, Olga, Doe Bay and others to streamline the process. Happily, the Land Bank recently received $500,000 in grant funding to acquire a portion of Rosario’s water rights on a willing-seller basis.

Rosario has expressed willingness, but the arrangement has yet to be consummated.

Up and down Cascade Creek, the passion of the community is palpable. Is this a battle we can win?

“Absolutely,” says De Groot, Taylor, Boessow and Guillozet with one voice. Is San Juan County making inroads into the broader salmon crisis? “It depends,” they say. Cascade Creek is a microcosm, demonstrating a dynamic that could be replicated elsewhere on a larger scale.

The story does not end here. Thinking back on her past experiences – a life studying marine wildlife ecosystems from Alaska to Antarctica – De Groot feels a sense of fulfillment.

“My life has prepared me to be here, to protect this creek, and to protect these fish. I will keep working on it until the end of my days, if necessary — to make sure that there are still salmon coming up Cascade Creek,” she said.

To join De Groot on a video journey to Cascade Creek:

In part two, the Sounder looks beyond Cascade Creek the county’s only private salmon hatchery, and to the bottom of the Salish Sea, where dense populations of so-called “forage fish” live perilous lives as prey for the larger salmon. We will meet the people who mix scientific knowledge with a measure of passion to help the ecosystem survive.