Removing the last barriers to salmon in Chico Creek

Biologists and engineers witnessed chum salmon take advantage of a newly restored tributary to Chico Creek this fall, soon after the streambed was completed.

This work is part of a two-year-long project at the mouth of the Chico Creek watershed to remove its biggest choke points for salmon—a significant fish passage barrier on the mainstem under State Route 3 and three smaller barriers on the nearby tributary—opening 21 miles of upstream habitat.

This is a milestone for both the salmon and the Suquamish Tribe, said Rob Purser, the tribe’s fisheries director. He recalls how salmon runs were abundant in the area when he was growing up but dwindled after the culverts were installed in the 1970s. 

However, the watershed is still home to Kitsap County’s most populated chum salmon run, and also supports coho salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout.

“This work is a step in the right direction,” Purser said. “We know culvert replacements won’t fix everything but fixing the habitat gets us much closer to recovering salmon populations.”

Atkinson Construction gives a tour of the nearly finished restored tributary. Tiffany Royal

In 2022, on the nearby tributary, a 36-inch-wide metal culvert pipe was replaced with a bridge that spans over a 14-foot-wide channel. The tributary also was realigned to create a more sinuous stream, eliminating several stream crossings and providing a more contiguous streambank.

In 2023, on the Chico Creek mainstem under the highway, two 8-foot-wide box culverts will be replaced with a bridge that will allow for a 200-foot-wide span, giving salmon plenty of space to move within the streambed.

“With a fast-moving creek running through small culverts, it creates a fire hose effect, resulting in a degraded stream channel and making it difficult for chum salmon to jump up and swim through the culverts,” said Tom Ostrom, the tribe’s ecosystem recovery manager. “And chum salmon aren’t great jumpers to begin with. So replacing these narrow culverts with wide streambeds will make a significant difference.”

In both streams, logs and rootwads are being added to enhance fish habitat, and riparian areas are being planted with conifers to provide future logjam material. Logjams are key to salmon habitat, as they slow water velocity and provide places for fish to rest and feed.

The restoration work also includes reconfiguring the on- and off-ramps from the highway to Chico Way, eliminating more stream crossings and fish barriers.

This is the fifth major salmon habitat restoration project in the watershed within the past two decades, including others further upstream on Chico, Dickerson, Lost and Wildcat creeks. It also has been one of the top priorities of Washington state in its culvert removal program, which was created to replace nearly 1,000 culverts statewide that have been identified as barriers to fish passage and violate tribal treaty rights by diminishing salmon runs. 

To improve salmon habitat, a new bridge replaced an old culvert on a Chico Creek tributary. Story and photo: Tiffany Royal