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News / Northwest

Lummi Nation gets $9.8M to restore South Fork Nooksack watershed

With small work window, project will take up to 5 years to finish

By Jack Belcher, The Bellingham Herald
Published: April 16, 2024, 7:27pm

BELLINGHAM — More than 2,500 chinook salmon died in the South Fork of the Nooksack River from overheating during the 2021 summer “heat dome” that saw temperatures reach over 100 degrees.

“We really ramped up our efforts in the last 10 to 15 years to bring our salmon back,” Lisa Wilson, secretary for Lummi Indian Business Council told The Bellingham Herald. “Two years ago we brought that population back to over 3,000, but over 2,500 of them died before they could reach spawning grounds.”

The effort to save the salmon recently received a boost in the form of a $9.8 million federal grant to help restore the watershed.

The South Fork Nooksack Watershed Restoration Project is a combination of five smaller projects across 3.2 miles of the Nooksack River and Skookum Creek in the South Fork Valley, Wilson said. Restoration efforts can only be conducted between mid-July and mid-August, when the salmon population in the river is low, meaning the project itself will take four to five years to complete.

“The first project we hope to complete is Construct 1 ELJ in the mainstream, and re-route the Skookum Creek Hatchery outfall to restore low-flow fish passage,” Wilson said.

The plan also involves construction of 20 habitat structures in the new outfall channel, installation of a flood fence, and work to create cool places for salmon to take shelter during the hotter months, which will only get worse with climate change and increased development.

Restoration workers add fallen trees to the river to create logjams. The trees carve out deep, cold water pools for salmon to take shelter in, as well as shaded areas, according to Wilson.

“Our goal is to restore the Nooksack River Watershed to properly functioning conditions for salmon recovery,” Lummi Nation Watershed Restoration Manger Kelly Turner told The Herald in an email. “For each geographic area of the watershed, we have habitat goals such as number of deep, wood formed pools, riparian forest area and side channel.”

“We are still trying to restore the river from legacy habitat degradation when settlers first arrived (in the late 1800s and early 1900s) and the logging industry was first starting,” Turner added. “There would be thinning and clearing of trees all the way down to the river. We lost a lot of those old-growth trees that would naturally fall into the river over time and create these nice, big logjams, and create deep pools and shade for salmon.”

Climate change is also harmful to the river’s health. Not only is there the direct impact of warmer summer temperatures heating the river, but warmer winter temperatures mean the mountains see less snow in the winter. This leads to less snowmelt in the summer, which means less water in the river over the summer, so the water heats up even quicker.

“We are kinda just running to stay in place, and that is not getting us to salmon recovery. It is not enough,” Turner said.

Currently, the Lummi Nation has barely enough salmon for their cultural practices. The fish are vital to a number of ceremonies such as funerals, Wilson said. Keeping the watershed healthy and keeping salmon in the river is important for the Lummi Nation and other Indigenous tribes, on a cultural level.

“We want to make sure we have salmon for our future generations,” Wilson said.

Another difficulty in repairing the watershed is securing funding through grants. The tribe has to compete for grants against other stakeholders.