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Originally published October 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 13, 2008 at 7:59 AM

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Former engineer Andy Batcho becomes a friend of fish

Seattle-area conservationist Andy Batcho taps his space-program drive and fishing acumen to lead the rescue of two salmon-rearing creeks.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Walker and Miller creeks meet next to the Normandy Park Community Club and then flow as one into nearby Puget Sound. Thick foliage casts shade. Bugs dab the surface. Logs recline in the waterway, causing detours, funnels and pools.

Everything seems as nature meant it to be.

Look closer, though, and you may notice a bit of engineering. Cables lock the logs in place. Boulders have been placed just so. Native plants crowd the shore where finely mowed grass used to be. The "debris" has been reintroduced to these urban streams to bring back the food and shelter young salmon need to feed, rest, survive.

Andy Batcho, who has spent more than 20 years and lent his engineering and fishing expertise to help resurrect the suburban waterway, stands on one shore and chuckles.

"We're not nearly as good as Mother Nature when it comes to designing things so we use cables," he says. "But the creek no longer looks like a bathtub. It has complexity — the kind that salmon need."

Batcho was recently cited as a "conservation hero" and awarded $5,000 by Field & Stream magazine for his work on the lower end of the Miller/Walker Creeks Watershed, which runs from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the Sound.

He didn't stop at the two streams. He also designed and directed the transformation of a silt-choked pond into a wayside for rearing juvenile salmon and a salt marsh-estuary to help the fish transition between fresh and saltwater within the lower watershed.

It's all relative

Batcho, a trim, active man of 61, proved to be the right guy to lead the long-running citizen effort, which has included years of planning, scores of volunteers and lots of weekend labor. He grew up in a fishing family, started a "very successful" live-bait business at 8, and now leads the Yellowstone Gang, a group of men who decided to fish the finest trout rivers in the land while they still had their health.

As a former chief engineer at Boeing and a member of the Apollo space missions, he likes tackling complex challenges. As an accomplished fly fisherman and former president of the Des Moines chapter of Trout Unlimited, he knows what fish like and need.

"I always have felt that stream restoration is like an open-book test," says Batcho, who holds a few world records for trout he has hooked. "You just use the original science of observation and Mother Nature will give you the answer. Just look and you will see what the fish want, how they travel, where they will feed and hide. You also see that everything is related."

But it was hardly that simple. He also had to factor in the urban development that has so greatly altered the habitat and get the support of the community club, which owns and uses the property — known as "the cove" — for social events. Friends have called Batcho "MacGyver" because of his ingenuity, but King County biologist Bob Fuerstenberg, who inspired Batcho and taught him habitat and surveying principles, says he is foremost an example of citizenship stamina.

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"When I first talked to him about this 20 years ago, I was telling him how difficult restoration can be," Fuerstenberg recalls. "He said, 'Well, we put a man on the moon.' I said, yeah, but stream ecology is more difficult because it changes every time you look at it. It evolves. Andy got it — fast. And 20 years later, he's still committed. If everybody was like that, things would be a lot better off."

Batcho says the creeks were home to about 1,000 adult salmon in the '20s and '30s, but the population dwindled to near zero with urban development. He figures the population is now as high as 400. "So I guess we're 40 percent done," he says.

A rest stop for fish

Miller Creek wends from White Center, through Burien, past the north end of the airport, and drops through Normandy Park before emptying into Puget Sound at the Cove. It also drains a few small lakes, surface-water retention ponds and all of the runoff from the streets, sidewalks and parking lots along the way. Walker begins in a wetland to the west of the airport, collecting surface water from streets along the way.

When work began on Walker Creek, it was little more than a grass-lined ditch that ran directly in front of the community clubhouse before joining Miller. Volunteers built contours into Walker, increasing fry-rearing habitat tenfold, and reopened its side channel, which connected to a pond but had been choked to a trickle by 40 years of silt buildup. About 100 dump-truckloads of silt were removed from the channel and pond, which is now vibrant and home to rearing salmon as well as trout.

The pond connects to a little log fish ladder and a salt marsh with a labyrinth of channels and pools. The salt marsh, designed by Batcho and inspired by the Nisqually Delta, serves as a transition zone between fresh and saltwater as well as a feeding and resting spot for the juveniles.

As the project gained momentum, it continued to generate grant money, community support and the sweat of volunteers from Trout Unlimited to Stewards of the Cove to youth groups.

Dennis Clark is King County's steward of the Miller and Walker Creeks Basin for King County and is working with governments and volunteers in Burien, Normandy Park and SeaTac, as well as the Port of Seattle and the county to try to improve the entire 9-square-mile stream basin. He marvels at how Batcho has blended the technical work with cooperation at the cove.

"Stream restoration is driven by scientific principles," says Clark. "But its application is as much an art form as a technical exercise. Andy has tremendous knowledge of streams and good judgment. When we talked he was as good at listening to my ideas as he was at advancing his own."

Keeping it in perspective

Most Saturdays, volunteers work the property. Scouts have built wooden trails and bridges to provide access but reduce human footprints. Education groups use it to teach habitat principles.

Clark says the bottom line is this: More than 3,000 feet of improved stream length for fish (coho and chum salmon), birds (kingfishers, great blue herons and other species), and a pond so alive that a river otter has taken a keen interest in its residents. The lower section of the basin is especially important to adult salmon migrating up the creeks and juvenile salmon rearing in the streams and the pond.

"It's likely that young chinook salmon — protected under the Endangered Species Act — stop into the stream mouths for food and shelter as they rear and migrate along Puget Sound shorelines," Clark says.

Tony Cassarino, a longtime steward of the lower watershed, saw the first salmon of the season in Walker Creek last week, right on time. Batcho and others relish every sign of normality, but he keeps the incremental success in perspective.

"It's not like two little streams are going to fix the salmon-population problems in Seattle or the state," he says, "but if we can share what works, and what doesn't, and what we've learned over 20 years, maybe other volunteers somewhere can do something similar."

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241

or rseven@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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