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Wednesday, October 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Snohomish County opinion

Protect urban watersheds

Special to The Times

When we were kids, my brother and I took great delight in going down to the creek that flowed behind my grandmother's house. We would sit quietly next to a pool in the stream and watch trout nosing around tree branches and stumps that had fallen in the water. On hot summer days, we would dive into the creek to cool off. Sometimes we would splash around and try to find giant salamanders that we called "mudpuppies." Kids and creeks just go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Unfortunately, kids today must be a lot more cautious around creeks in urban/suburban environments: Most small streams are no longer suitable for recreation. Bad news if you happen to have an urge to jump into the neighborhood fish'n' hole — a shower is necessary afterward and if you drink the water there is a good chance you will get sick. Really bad news if you happen to be a fish: Your local creek may prove fatal!

(Note: State and local research finds all urban streams from Arlington to Tacoma, including every stream flowing into Lake Washington, unsuitable for contact recreation; University of Washington researchers found Lake Washington's resident fish too toxic for human consumption.)

Next to healthy salmon streams, you will find a wide stand of vegetation called riparian zones. Trees and shrubs provide shade that cools the air temperature that, in turn, keeps the water cool and highly oxygenated. Roots from riparian vegetation filter out many of the pollutants from the land around your stream, called a watershed.

Now, fall is here. Juvenile salmon that hatched out last spring and survived have grown a few inches; they are migrating to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, adult salmon from your stream are making a reverse migration, coming back to spawn future generations. Then they die.

Their bodies become a source of food for a wide variety of wildlife and microorganisms in your creek. They also supply nutrients to your creek's riparian vegetation, which, in turn, supplies leaf litter, fallen logs and branches that become hiding places for fish. Riparian material also provides habitat for underwater insects that will become food for juvenile salmon hatching out in your stream next spring. Everything is linked together... that is what ecology is all about.

Sadly, we have not been very good stewards of our urban watersheds. Sprawling development covering the landscape with rooftops, parking lots and driveways is in vogue. "Vertical development" on a small footprint surrounded by open space has not caught on yet in Puget Sound country. As a consequence, open space is disappearing and riparian zones are shrinking. Stream flows are rapidly changing from moderate to very high with flooding during rainy periods, and very low when it is dry. Numbers of underwater insects are shrinking, as the riparian zones get smaller... and so are the numbers of salmon.

So, what can you do?

Contact your local government public works/planning department and the state Ecology or Fish and Wildlife departments. Find out what watershed you live in, which fish live in your home stream, and the quality of your home stream's biology and water quality. Ask if future land-use plans will not only accommodate new human populations, but also protect your stream's salmon at the same time. Learn about any local stream-protection initiatives and how you and your children can get involved.

Consider adding "green" features to your house (rain barrels or green roofs), condo or apartment (storm-drain filters for your parking lots). Check out "low-impact development" on the Internet for ideas. Convert your lawn into a landscape for wildlife using drought-tolerant native plants that don't require fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Join a local stream-enhancement group. Encourage your children and their schoolmates to "adopt a stream." This can be fun.

By the way, not only do salmon return to your watershed in the fall, candidates for city, town and county councils are also there seeking your support. Find out their views on your watershed's ecology. Then cast a well-thought-out vote. That action is a critically important step that you can take to make your local creek safe for kids and fish once again.

Tom Murdoch is director of Adopt-A-Stream Foundation, www.streamkeeper.org, based at the Northwest Stream Center in Snohomish County, and co-author of the "Streamkeeper's Field Guide: Watershed Inventory and Stream Monitoring Methods."

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