Watershed Planning

WRIA 1 and the Hirst Decision

The Nooksack Indian Tribe is one of five initiating governments to collaborate on watershed and water resources planning in the Nooksack River watershed and nearby marine tributaries. This collaborative watershed planning effort is in pursuant to the state’s watershed planning act (RCW 90.82). The state is divided into Water Resources Inventory Areas (WRIAs) and the Nooksack River watershed and associated marine tributaries comprise WRIA #1. The initiating governments include Whatcom County, City of Bellingham, PUD #1, Nooksack Indian Tribe, and Lummi Nation. Policy makers of each initiating government comprise a “joint board” formed in 1998 and tasked with making decisions on how to proceed with and implement watershed planning. In addition, a salmon recovery board was formed in 1998. As both boards had common interests and responsibilities related to water resources planning, a new board was formed in 2016 that replaced these two independent boards. The new board is called the WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board. This board is comprised of Whatcom County, City of Bellingham, PUD #1, Nooksack Indian Tribe, Lummi Nation, Whatcom County Small Cities, and WA Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Watershed Management Board is serviced by a management team that makes recommendations to the board and several technical staff teams such as the watershed management, salmon recovery, and local integrating organization (LIO) staff teams. 

Currently, the WRIA 1 Planning Unit is also involved with watershed planning but is solely advisory to County Council. The Tribe has played an active technical and policy role in all of the work accomplished under the previous boards and the Watershed Management Board. Both a salmon recovery plan and a watershed management plan were developed in 2005. The Tribe has been actively involved in implementing these plans and updates. For instance, the Nooksack Indian Tribe played a key role in attempting to update the watershed management plan pursuant to the “Hirst Fix”, a legislative action aimed at resolving some of the legal issues relating to the “Hirst Case.” Under the “Hirst Fix”, WRIA 1 initiating governments were required to develop a watershed management plan update that addressed the requirements of the legislative action (RCW 90.94) that addressed the authorization of future domestic groundwater exempt wells associated with rural residential development. Unfortunately, WRIA 1 entities were not able to develop a plan update that could be approved by WRIA 1 Watershed Management Board, Planning Unit, and/or Whatcom County Council by the January 16, 2019 deadline. As such, the State Department of Ecology is now responsible to develop a regulatory rule that addresses this issue independent of the hard work WRIA 1 entities expended at developing a watershed plan update.

The South Fork Nooksack River Temperature TMDL, Qualitative Assessment, and Quantitative Assessment

The South Fork Nooksack River watershed is the most impaired by high water temperatures. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology), and the Nooksack Indian Tribe have been collaborating on the development of a stream temperature Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the South Fork Nooksack River. A TMDL is required when an impaired water body is listed as Category 5 on the CWA 303(d) list. In addition to this Regulatory Objective, EPA Region 10 partnered with EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) and the Office of Water (OW), and together with NIT initiated a Pilot Research Project to consider how projected climate change impacts for the South Fork Nooksack River could be incorporated into the TMDL and influence fish habitat restoration plans that are robust in the face of climate change (EPA, 2016). NIT Natural Resources staff provided substantive comments in 2011 on how the TMDL was to be accomplished. Of particular note were our comments that if the TMDL was a tool to help bring the SFNR into CWA 303(d) compliance, then the following issues must be addressed in the TMDL:

  • Upland watershed processes
  • Legacy impacts
  • Climate change
  • Reasonable natural conditions
  • Focus on impacts to fish –the designated or beneficial use, not just the CWA numeric criteria
  • Our comments on the TMDL and how the regulatory agencies responded to those comments facilitated the preparation of a successful TMDL.

The overarching goal of the pilot research project was to further EPA’s understanding of how to incorporate projected climate change impacts into a total maximum daily load (TMDL) implementation plan, using the temperature TMDL developed for the South Fork as a pilot study. The Pilot involved the integration of climate science, ESA salmon recovery, and clean water act compliance in one comprehensive project. The TMDL program is one of the primary frameworks for maintaining and achieving healthy waterbodies nationwide, implemented pursuant to section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act. Additionally, the collaborative framework and coordinated research components conducted as part of the pilot research project provided the opportunity to move beyond the regulatory goal of the South Fork temperature TMDL and synergistically explore how climate change might influence salmon recovery actions and restoration plans prepared in the context of the Endangered Species Act.

The pilot research project was structured into two research components—a quantitative assessment and a qualitative assessment—and relied on stakeholder engagement as a fundamental, cross-cutting element. The stakeholder-centric element benefited from the participation of both knowledgeable scientists and informed laypeople, and included several stakeholder involvement events (i.e., 10 workshops, meetings, and webinars, several of which were hosted by the Nooksack Indian Tribe). 

The quantitative assessment evaluates the implications of climate change for the water temperature TMDL developed for the South Fork, using best available climate science (Butcher et al. 2016). This assessment used quantitative methods (e.g., the QUAL2Kw water quality model) to project future temperatures in the South Fork. It compares modeled stream temperatures to the state’s cold-water temperature water quality standard to inform the TMDL implementation plan.

Results from the quantitative assessment show that the risk of higher water temperatures will accelerate over time (Butcher et al. 2016). Predicted increases in heat inputs and lower summer flows associated with a reduction in the storage of winter snowpack will combine to exacerbate summer water temperature extremes under low-flow critical conditions. The QUALK2w model simulations suggest that, without restoration of riparian shade, water temperatures during critical summer low-flow conditions could increase by amounts ranging from 3.5 to almost 6 degrees Celsius by the 2080s. Restoration of full system potential riparian shading can help buffer against temperature increases and mitigate from 30 to 60 percent of the critical period increase; however, even with system potential shade, average stream water temperatures are projected to increase.

The qualitative assessment was conducted to consider important habitat features other than riparian shading that also can affect salmon recovery (EPA 2016). This assessment is a comprehensive analysis of climate change impacts on freshwater habitats and Pacific salmon in the South Fork, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of restoration tools. While including the findings of the quantitative assessment, the qualitative assessment used local and tribal knowledge of the Nooksack Indian Tribe to identify and prioritize climate change adaptation strategies. 

The qualitative assessment found that climate change impacts on temperature, hydrologic, and sediment regimes could profoundly affect the distribution, life history periodicity, survival, and productivity of salmonids in the South Fork. NIT Natural Resources Department staff substantially contributed to this Pilot both in providing needed data and by conducting the analysis for the Qualitative Assessment. We understand from the EPA that the Qualitative Assessment publication was the first EPA publication where Tribal staff were the senior authors.


Butcher, J. B., M. Faizullabhoy, H. Nicholas, P. Cada, AND J. T. Kennedy. Quantitative Assessment of Temperature Sensitivity of the South Fork Nooksack River under Future Climates using QUAL2Kw. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-14/233, 2016.


U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2016. Qualitative Assessment: Evaluating the Impacts of Climate Change on Endangered Species Act Recovery Actions for the South Fork Nooksack River, WA. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-16/153


South Fork Nooksack Watershed Conservation Planning

The South Fork Nooksack River (SFNR) watershed is a very special place. It is home to approximately 500 people who live there and/or make a living there. SFNR community members are fiercely proud of the watershed that they steward and take special interest in its condition and quality. The watershed provides numerous ecological functions and services as well as life-style and employment opportunities. One of the major concerns for the watershed is the quality of the water and quantity of flow in the SFNR. Observations and studies suggest that historically, flows have decreased, temperatures have increased, and sediment loads have increased. The quality of water in the SFNR does not meet federal and state Clean Water Acts (CWA) standards, and as such, the river is considered an impaired water body. Because of this, the river has been placed on the CWA Section 303(d) list of impaired water bodies for excessive temperatures and excessive fine sediment. These impairments hamper the ability of the river to support beneficial or designated uses of the river under the CWA, which are primarily for fish and fish habitat. This section of the CWA mandates that the water quality impairments be ameliorated through an “implementation plan” that identifies actions that can reduce or eliminate the sources of the water pollution causing excessive temperatures and fine sediment. The SFNR community has shown interest in the development of a community framework watershed plan that addresses the issues of land use (including agriculture and forestry), economic opportunities, recreation use, and the protection of life styles, in addition to the quality of the watershed and in the river. The purpose of this watershed conservation plan is to provide the technical basis upon which the SFNR community can develop a community framework watershed plan. The watershed conservation plan presents pertinent detail on the physical setting of the watershed, including the legacy impacts of past land use and continued climate change, and makes recommendations on actions that could reduce the severity of legacy impacts and continued climate change. The watershed conservation plan also summarizes the extensive and intensive public outreach and stakeholder and community engagement project that was implemented to develop a list of issues, concerns, and opportunities (ICOs). The ICOs provide a basis for the development of the community framework watershed plan.

The South Fork River Watershed Conservation Plan, Executive Summary, and other links can be accessed via the South Fork Nooksack River Watershed Community Planning website:

Timber Harvest Watershed Planning in the North Fork Nooksack River

In June 2019, Water Resources Program staff installed stream gages in Canyon Creek and Glacier Creek in order to collect a baseline of streamflow and stream temperature.  Timber thinning and harvest is planned to start in 2019-2020 in these watersheds, which will likely have impacts to fish habitat.