2020 State of Our Watersheds: More Restoration Projects, Less Shoreline Armoring

The fifth edition of the Northwest Treaty Tribes’ State of Our Watersheds Report is now available as a PDF to download in its entirety (46 MB) or by individual chapters. The 2020 State of Our Watersheds Interactive Viewer also is available here.

The State of Our Watersheds Report (SOW) from the 20 treaty tribes in western Washington is broken down by regions and tribal areas of interest. Each tribe identifies different indicators and special topics as a priority for their region that directly tie to the region’s environmental health. The report also includes analysis on regional indicators for both the Puget Sound and the Pacific Coast regions.

Overall, the results are mixed, with little change in most indicators. Highlights include the increased number of restoration projects completed by the tribes and their partners, and the state reporting a decrease in the overall amount of marine shoreline armoring.

“The 2020 State of Our Watersheds Report documents environmental conditions and tracks trends to hold us all accountable to the need for urgent action to protect our region’s watersheds and their habitats,” said Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “We know the status quo isn’t working when it comes to salmon recovery. We know what the science says needs to be done. We know that we must move forward together to address habitat because it is the most important action we can take to recover salmon.”

A consistent trend identified in the 2020 State of Our Watersheds Report is that key habitat features, such as riparian vegetation, habitat connectivity and streamflows, continue to be imperiled by human activities. This extensive loss and degradation of habitat, changing climate and ocean conditions threaten salmon, tribal cultures and tribal treaty-reserved rights, wildlife habitat, water quality and western Washington’s economy and quality of life.

The principal findings in this report illustrate this alarming trend, but the descriptions contained within each tribe’s watershed review provide the most accurate depiction of the habitat issues each tribe faces.

Below are six indicators from the SOW that concern the tribes.

Habitat Restoration Is Happening but More Is Needed 

After 60 years, the Middle Fork Nooksack River Dam was removed in 2020.

Habitat restoration is happening in western Washington, but more needs to be done to counter the impacts of a growing population and past mismanagement of the region’s resources. 

One habitat restoration highlight over the past decade is the removal of the Elwha River dams. Conditions of The Elwha River (page 96) have been monitored by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and partners to gauge ecosystem response to the removal of the Elwha dams. Six years following dam removal, there have been positive responses for chinook, steelhead, coho, bull trout and Pacific lamprey.

In the Nooksack watershed (page 178), the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack River Dam will restore access to 16 miles of relatively pristine habitat for threatened chinook salmon, bull trout and steelhead. It is estimated that dam removal will increase chinook salmon populations in the Nooksack River region by more than 30% and will increase steelhead habitat in the Middle Fork Nooksack by 45%.


Degraded Nearshore Habitat Unable to Support Forage Fish

Ala Spit after 160 feet of riprap and 400 feet of cement wall armor were removed in 2015.

During the past century, nearshore areas have been directly and negatively degraded by human development (page 34). Shoreline modifications, such as armoring, interrupt the movement of sediment and can starve beaches of sediment, which negatively affects forage fish spawning habitat.

Since the 2016 SOW Report, shoreline armoring has been reduced by about 1 mile and the state has permitted the addition of about 6.7 miles of armor replacement. Overall, from 2015 to 2018, the amount of armoring has been reduced for Puget Sound but the reductions are not shared across the region.


Rapidly Increasing Permit-Exempt Wells Threaten Water for Fish

Pacific Coast Region: The vast majority of total and new wells in the region are in the Chehalis watershed. This increasing rate of new well installations threatens groundwater availability and ecosystem health across the region.

Since the 2016 SOW Report, all watersheds have seen an increase in water wells. It is estimated that the majority of wells are drilled for home construction and are suspected as a potential cause for low flow problems found in many watersheds. 

Since 1980, over 67,000 wells have been developed in the Puget Sound Region (page 40). In the time period from 2015 to 2019, 5,815 wells were built, which represents a 40% increase from the number of wells built during the previous five years (2010-2014)

In the Pacific Coast Region (page 19), over 10,000 wells have been developed. From 2015 to 2019, 1,133 of these were built, which is a 74% increase from the number of wells built during the previous five years (2010-2014).


Impervious Surface Area Impacts Water Quality
and Salmonid Habitat

Excluding federal lands, impervious surface area increased to about 7% in 2016, an increase of 1.2% since 2011. By 2040, the forecast population for Puget Sound will increase an additional 1,100,000 beyond 2016; with an associated increase to almost 8.5% impervious surface area. The Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Plan lists minimizing impervious surfaces as a key strategy for protecting habitat.

High population densities lead to large amounts of impervious surfaces, such as roads and other infrastructures (page 35), negatively impacting the local watersheds and resulting in loss of salmon habitat.

Sensitive stream habitat conditions may be lost when 10% of the watershed is covered by impervious surface area. From 2011 to 2016, the total area of impervious surfaces continued to increase but at a slower pace, with a common rate of increase between 0% to 4%.

One of the greatest concerns stemming from impervious surfaces is the stormwater runoff that occurs during our seasonal rain events. Based on recent predictive modeling in Puget Sound, stormwater runoff from high traffic roads is creating Urban Runoff Mortality Syndrome or Pre-Spawn Mortality (PSM) conditions in over 48% of documented coho salmon habitat, resulting in pre-spawn mortality rates between 10% and 40%.


Forest Cover Is Improving but Riparian Forest Cover Is Diminishing

The loss of forest cover occurs with timber harvest operations and land conversions. Since the 2016 SOW Report, overall, there was little to no change in forest cover but some areas showed improvement in forest cover across the region. For example, in the Makah Area forest cover (page 123), conditions improved by about 15% in land having greater than 75% forest cover.

Although it is a temporary impact, the removal of forest cover in watersheds can affect a watershed’s stability and overall quality of habitat for salmonids. Large clearcuts, inadequate buffers, mass wasting, and poorly constructed and/or maintained forest roads all have led to the degradation of salmon habitat.

Since statehood in 1889, Washington has lost an estimated 50% of its riparian habitat. Diminishing riparian forests in the lowlands of western Washington continue to impair habitats critical to the recovery of the region’s anadromous salmon.


Climate Change Impacts the Region’s Resources

Ocean acidification (decrease in ocean pH) will cause waters to become “corrosive to shell-forming organisms such as oyster larvae, clams, mussels and crabs,” posing serious threats to the shellfish in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Pictured are pteropod shells dissolving because of the decreasing ocean pH.

As the climate continues to change (page 24), impacts to the daily tribal way of life continue. Reductions in the glaciers, extreme weather events and streamflow impacts along coastal Washington are all signs that our climate is changing.

All coastal tribes have observed a shift in the coastal rivers’ streamflows, which will have a direct impact on the salmon and steelhead populations of the area. Peak flow values are showing an increasing trend while low flows are showing a decreasing trend. This was the same observation as reported in the 2016 SOW Report.

Tribes are beginning to respond to the threats brought on by climate change. For example, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is among the tribes on the forefront of addressing vulnerabilities and preparing for climate change. The 2013 Jamestown Climate Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Plan (page 74) provides an assessment of vulnerabilities of tribal resources to the negative impacts of climate change. The plan also identifies adaptive measures that the tribe is working on completing.