North Fork Nooksack River Maple Creek Reach Chinook Habitat Restoration
By Eric Stover, Watershed Restoration Coordinator
The Natural and Cultural Resource Department (NCR) completed the first phase of the two-phase North Fork (Xwqélém) Nooksack Maple Creek (P’eq’ósiy) Reach Restoration Project this past summer. The project is located about a mile east of the town of Maple Falls near the confluence of the North Fork Nooksack River and Maple Creek. A total of 22 engineered logjams (ELJs) were constructed over 0.3 miles of the river and floodplain. The project is part of the department’s broader efforts to increase natural production of chinook and other salmon for sustainable tribal harvest. North/Middle Fork Nooksack early chinook is a genetically unique, native population with low numbers of returning natural-origin fish. The Nooksack Tribe hasn’t had a directed commercial fishery on early chinook in the Nooksack River since about 1980.
Currently, NCR staff are working with landowners and government agencies to restore habitat in this part of the North Fork Nooksack River. The right bank landowner is the Whatcom Land Trust (WLT), and the left bank and river channel is managed by Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The WLT has been working for over a decade to restore the riparian forest and natural creek meanders on and along Maple Creek that were cleared and ditched for agricultural use during the homesteading era. Because the Maple Creek Reach of the North Fork Nooksack is a high priority for chinook habitat restoration, NCR secured a grant to design and implement restoration in the river. Our expertise in river restoration complements that of the Whatcom Land Trust with the partnership resulting in substantial improvement to salmon habitat.
Before colonization by Europeans, the North Fork Nooksack had many areas of wide floodplain with large naturally formed logjams. These logjams stabilized gravel bars that then developed into forested islands in the river, with side channels on each side of the islands. Side channels are very important for chinook, providing protected areas less vulnerable to the fast water that can wash out the gravel, along with salmon eggs and young salmon. Post European colonization, the forest was cleared along the river, and logjams were removed. The river began migrating across the floodplain much more rapidly, resulting in the loss of both forested islands and side channels. The problems from this prior clearing of the forest and logjams in the river still persists even now, because the forest cannot regenerate rapidly enough to provide the large trees needed for natural stable logjams to form and persist. To this day, the trees that erode from the banks of the river are relatively small and get washed down to the delta and bay.
The primary goal of restoration by NCR staff in the Maple Creek Reach of the North Fork Nooksack River is to restore chinook habitat by creating stable log jams that slow and deflect the river to restore the side channel habitat and forested islands. While restoring riparian forests is critically important, it will take many decades before these forests have large enough trees to form stable logjams. In the interim, we are using engineered log jams to replace the function of naturally formed logjams. Although restoring chinook habitat is the highest priority, this restoration also benefits other salmon and trout species that use the reach, including steelhead, bull trout, coho, chum, sockeye, pink, and cutthroat trout.
NCR staff have completed several chinook habitat restoration projects in the North Fork, and each project presents unique challenges and opportunities. The phase of the project this summer had quite a bit of construction activity around the confluence of Maple Creek and the North Fork of the Nooksack River. Maple Creek is a productive spawning and rearing area for several species of salmon. NCR staff worked closely with the engineering firm Natural Systems Design, as well as the landowners and managers to balance the location of construction in order to avoid negative impacts to the existing high-quality habitat in lower Maple Creek.
The lower section of the creek has a healthy population of beaver that have constructed an extensive complex of dams, which create habitat that is, unfortunately, rare today in the floodplain of the Nooksack River. The approach taken by the design team and NCR staff was to construct a series of log jams between the current channel of the river and the lower end of the creek near the confluence with the North Fork to reduce the risk that the North Fork will migrate into lower Maple Creek. In addition to protecting Maple Creek, the log jams also protect the river bank from erosion, giving the adjacent forest a chance to regenerate. The goal is that in several decades, when the log jams decay, the trees will have grown large enough to form natural logjams that sustain future generations of salmon.
As with other projects we have completed, in-water construction areas were first isolated from the main flow to keep muddy water from affecting downstream habitats and to facilitate removal and relocation of fish. This project contained the most diverse and among the highest densities of juvenile salmon and trout, including chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, that we have encountered on any of the restoration projects we have completed over the past 15 years.
Update: Since the time this article was originally written, the North Fork Nooksack Maple Creek Reach project has been assessed for changes in the river channel and habitat for salmon and to see if any damages occurred to the ELJs. No damage was observed and the ELJs constructed at the lower end of the reach, to prevent the river from eroding lower Maple Creek while improving habitat in the river, functioned as designed.
Next year, we plan to continue work up river from this year’s successful Phase 1. Phase 2 will include construction of 20 log jams in a 0.4-mile section of the North Fork, with a similar goal of restoring a side channel and forested island at the edge of the floodplain.
The North Fork Nooksack Maple Reach Phase 1 restoration project was managed from design through construction and monitoring by Watershed Restoration Coordinator Eric Stover, with support from the following:
- Sindick Bura and Aaron Cline – log inventory, construction support, fish exclusion and planting
- Lindsie Fratus-Thomas – design review, planning support, fish exclusion and construction oversight support.
- Treva Coe – securing grant funding, grant and budget management, design review, fish exclusion
- Michael Maudlin – design review, habitat monitoring
- Ned Currence – water isolation planning, fish exclusion
- Darren Malloway, Jeremiah Johnny – fish exclusion
- Trevor Delgado – cultural resources review
- George Swanaset Jr. – department direction
The NCR Habitat Program staff also wish to thank Tribal Council and Administration staff for their strong support of these important chinook habitat restoration projects.
It takes a lot of effort, decades of work, and many hands to restore a river and attempt to bring back early chinook from the brink of extinction. We are grateful to have the opportunity to continue to do our part to recover salmon and to recover treaty fishing opportunities for the Nooksack Indian Tribal members.