Compiled by Helen Brandt, Ph.D.
Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch, has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the January 1999 issue of Whatcom Watch.
In June, 1998, the Lummi Nation, Nooksack Tribe and Whatcom County signed a memorandum of agreement. The purpose of the agreement is to establish a local decision-making group to ensure the long-term survival and harvest production of Chinook salmon in the Nooksack Basin, consistent with Treaty Rights and Endangered Species Act requirements.
The Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe will lead the Management Team for fisheries management. Included on the team will be the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. The county will lead the management team for land use management.
Nooksack Estuary Recovery
Important to the goal of ensuring the survival of local salmon stocks is the Nooksack Estuary Recovery Project. The Natural Resources Department of the Lummi Nation will coordinate the development of an environmental impact statement for the project, an essential first step.
It is expected that the cost of developing the environmental impact statement will be approximately two million dollars. The overall project goal is to recover the estuarine habitat and migration corridor that was lost when the Nooksack River was redirected to flow into Bellingham Bay.
Estuaries are critical salmon habitat because they provide a protected and food-rich environment for juvenile salmon growth. Estuaries also allow a transition for both juvenile and adults between the fresh and salt water environments.
Nooksack River Diversion
Prior to 1860 the Nooksack River discharged to Lummi Bay. In 1860 a log jam blocked the Nooksack River and diverted it to a small stream that flowed into Bellingham Bay. Since then, considerable effort has been expended to keep the Nooksack River discharging into Belllingham Bay. The stream remaining in the Nooksack River’s old channel has been called the Lummi or Red River.
In the 1920s, a reclamation project was initiated to both construct a dike to keep back the sea along the shore of Lummi Bay, and to construct a levee along the west side of the Nooksack River. This project, which was started in 1926 and completed in 1934, initially resulted in the near complete separation of the Lummi River from the Nooksack River.
Altering the Lummi River Flow
However, during flooding saltwater intrusion onto the newly reclaimed farmlands and damage to the dam at the head of the Lummi River occurred. The dam was replaced with a dam and spillway structure. This spillway structure was also damaged over the years during high- flow conditions. It was most recently replaced by a culvert structure that allows flow into the Lummi River only during high-flow conditions.
Levees were also constructed along the Lummi River to prevent saltwater intrusion onto adjacent farmlands. The dike and levee construction activity was accompanied by agricultural ditching to drain fields and wetland areas.
Wetlands Lost Along the River
Only about five percent of the wetland areas that existed at the outflow of the Lummi River in the late 1880s remain today. As recently as 1955, a water flow of nearly 200 cubic feet per second was measured in the Lummi River channel. Currently, there is essentially no Nooksack river water flowing in the Lummi River channel. And the Nooksack Delta no longer provides the quality of habitat which it did prior to 1860.
Salmon Habitat to Be Restored
Restoring wetland and estuary habitats is believed to be an important step in the recovery of the Chinook and coho salmon stocks in the Nooksack River basin. Currently, Chinook smolts (young salmon) tend to leave the river and rapidly disperse to other marine areas, rather than residing in the estuary “nursery.”
This rapid flush of out-migrating salmon is believed to be due in part to the loss of estuary habitats and nearshore eel grass beds in Bellingham Bay. It may also be due in part to the rapid progradation of the Nooksack Delta since 1860. And it may also be due to the loss of smolt access to Lummi Bay with its associated estuary and eel grass beds. The loss of estuary habitat also reduces the opportunities of returning adult salmon to acclimate to the fresh water of the Nooksack River.
Goals for the Nooksack Estuary
Specific goals of the Nooksack Estuary Recovery Project include the following:
1. Restore fish access and use of the Lummi/Nooksack River
• Increase the rearing and transition habitat
• Increase the adult migration and transition habitat
• Improve finfish management efforts
2. Restore and maintain the wetlands and estuarine habitats
• Provide a larger fish nursery
• Improve the water quality for the finfish and shellfish
• Maintain and enhance the other wetland functions
3. Improve flood control for Marietta
4. Optimize the current and future land use and zoning so as to promote economic development.
Multi-Million Dollar Project Launched
The primary goal of the Nooksack Estuary Recovery Project is to improve habitat for Nooksack River salmon stocks by increasing the size of the Lummi River and Nooksack River estuaries, and improving access to migration corridors.
The project is complex. Multiple agencies will be involved, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Numerous environmental permits will be required. It is anticipated that implementation of the project in its approved final form will take seven years. In early 1999, the Lummi Natural Resources Department begins the project design and Enviromental Impact process.
• Bortleson, G.C., M.J. Chrzastowski, and A.K. Helgerson. 1980. “Historical Changes of Shoreline and Wetland at Eleven Major Deltas in the Puget Sound Region, Washington.” U.S. Geological Survey. Hydrologic Investigations Atlas HA-617.
• Deardorff, L. 1992. “A Brief History of the Nooksack River’s Delta Distributaries.” Lummi Nation Fisheries Department.
• Washington State Department of Conservation. 1970. Water Resources of the Nooksack River Basin and Certain Adjacent Streams: Water Supply Bulletin No. 12
Compiled from the “Nooksack Estuary Recovery Project Conceptual Plan, June 24, 1998,” and Resolution 98-62, May 26, 1998, by the Lummi Indian Business Council.