Seattle’s wealth of waterways is one of the city’s treasures, but in an urban environment, every storm washes pollution from rooftops, driveways, roads and other hard surfaces into local creeks, lakes and Puget Sound, putting that treasure at risk.

The health of one of the region’s key species, salmon, is an indicator of the health of these waterways. Pacific salmon are anadromous; they begin their lives in fresh water, migrate to the ocean to live their adult lives, then return to their freshwater home stream to reproduce and die. There are many obstacles between spawning grounds and open ocean, including water pollution, large spillways and culverts that are too small for the drainage area that feeds them. 

Clearing some of these challenges in the upper watershed has been a priority for the past 20 years. The Forests & Fish Law signed by Gov. Gary Locke in 1999 protects 60,000 miles of streams running through nine million acres of state and private forestland, says Bill Monahan, current president of Washington Forest Protection Association. Nearly 53,000 miles of forest road have been inventoried and improved on state and private lands, opening nearly 6,200 miles of fish habitat.

In addition to a clear path for migration, salmon need cool, clear water. Private forest landowners set aside uncut buffer zones along creeks and streams as they harvest timber. This helps keep water cool, and the vegetation keeps soil stable, with less sediment running off into the streams.

Photo courtesy Washington Forest Protection Association

“Rayonier has opened up approximately 274 miles of habitat by upgrading close to 1,000 stream crossings since 2006.” says Monahan, who also holds the position of director of Western Forest Resources for Rayonier, a global forest company that owns approximately 430,000 acres of forest land in Washington. “At a statewide level, since 2001, forest landowners have removed more than 8,100 barriers to fish passage, reopening 6,200 miles of historic fish habitat.”

Monahan credits this success to investments made by the state, small and large private landowners of over $330 million, of which private forest landowners contributed $226 million.

It is encouraging to see the salmon return to the upper watersheds, says Monahan.

“Opening up the channels downstream to support the return of anadromous fish needs to be a top priority for all sectors of Washington,” he says.

Another important aspect of the Forests & Fish Law is to keep water clean by preventing road runoff and sediment from entering into streams.  About 90% of the road drainage has been disconnected from streams by diverting water from roads onto the forest floor, where water is naturally filtered and cleaned. 

The way forests of the Northwest filter and slow runoff from heavy rain has helped urban planners design and build effective and environmentally friendly systems to manage stormwater. Research suggests that mimicking this natural process to capture, slow down and clean runoff from storms is an effective way to minimize overflows of our wastewater system and prevent toxins from getting into creeks, rivers, lakes and Puget Sound.

Putting this into practice, King County Wastewater Treatment Division and Seattle Public Utilities builds “planter strips” filled with deep-rooted plants that help hold and clean runoff from roads and sidewalks, keeping some pollutants out of urban waterways.

This is key, as roads in urban areas are a major source of pollutants. Recent research shows that “tire dust,” tiny particles shed by tires as they wear, releases a chemical that is toxic to salmon, killing them before they can spawn, says John Stark, director of Washington’s Stormwater Center. “Other chemicals in stormwater cause damage to a range of aquatic organisms,” he says.

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Mitigating stormwater runoff and opening up lower watershed passages is underway in a variety of contexts. King County has adopted the Clean Water Healthy Habitat initiative to help further this work, says Christie True, director of the Department of Natural Resources for King County.

True says this work includes the following:

  • Removing barriers to salmon migration by replacing old and undersized culverts.
  • Protecting ecologically valuable properties to preserve the last of our natural lands.
  • Filtering and cleaning stormwater to reduce the impacts of runoff into our waterways.
  • Preventing and removing highly destructive noxious weeds like tansy ragwort, Scotch thistle, silverleaf nightshade and a host of other plants so native vegetation can thrive.

“We need to continue improving fish access to high-quality habitat, protecting existing high-quality habitat and restoring degraded habitat,” says True. “We also need to continue properly treating wastewater, managing stormwater and ensuring the built environment has as low an impact on natural areas as possible.”

True also suggests taking part in volunteer opportunities to remove invasive vegetation and plant native vegetation along streams, lakes and wetlands, or building a rain garden to help filter stormwater coming off the roof. This replicates the filter effect found naturally on the forest floor.

The successful work done to improve water quality and restore fish habitat in the region’s upper watersheds is a clear indicator of the impact this approach can have. Intensive efforts in urban areas can help complete the chain, allowing salmon and other native species to return to their natural patterns.

The Washington Forest Protection Association is a trade association representing private forest landowners in Washington State. Members are large and small companies, individuals and families who grow, harvest and regrow trees on about 4 million acres.