Matt Driscoll

Orcas could benefit from work to restore salmon habitat in Pierce County floodplains

The news could not have been worse, arriving about 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 13.

After a search described as massive, J50 — a southern resident killer whale given the name Scarlet due to the marks near her dorsal fin — was presumed dead by Ken Balcomb, the founding director of the Center for Whale Research.

As Lynda V. Mapes of the Seattle Times reported, J50’s death marked the second in the endangered family of southern resident orcas in less than two months. Earlier in the summer, J35 — or Tahlequah — brought worldwide attention to the desperate plight of the southern resident orcas by swimming for 17 days, and more than 1,000 miles, clinging to the lifeless body of her dead calf.

The orcas’ dire situation was a source of painful and blunt conversation last week in a van filled with people affiliated with the Floodplains for the Future partnership, a multi-agency effort that focuses on recovering flood plains along the Puyallup, Carbon and White Rivers.

“The orca population has been struggling. We saw a calf that was born die 30 minutes later. Another young orca died because it was malnourished — they don’t have enough food,” said Jordan Rash from the back of the van.

Rash is the conservation director for Forterra, a nonprofit land conservation and urban design organization that’s involved in the Floodplains for the Future partnership.

“OK, why are they malnourished? Why are the salmon not doing well?” Rash continued. “And what are we doing about it?’”

As Rash spoke, the van pulled up to a 45-acre floodplain restoration site near Clear Creek in Puyallup. Owned by the Port of Tacoma, the project’s main purpose is to mitigate flooding in an area historically prone to it.

In this work, another crucial objective is being accomplished: a floodplain near the Puyallup River that historically served as an important rearing ground for salmon making their way to saltwater is being restored.

That’s one thing, said Rash and the others in the van, that Pierce County and a host of partnering organizations — like the Puyallup Tribe, the Port of Tacoma and the Pierce Conservation District — are doing to help local salmon populations.

That, in turn, will help the ailing orcas.

In the Puyallup River watershed, 62 flood-risk management and salmon habitat restoration projects were completed between 2000 and 2016, creating 732 acres of salmon habitat. Currently, 13 similar projects are underway or in design.

Most of them have a similar theme: A flood event happens, engineers learn from it, and the opening provides an opportunity to step in and create something better.

The port’s project — officially known as the Upper Clear Creek Mitigation Site — is intended to increase floodplains in the Puyallup watershed and restore needed salmon habitat. As The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson previously reported, it’s what’s known as a mitigation bank, or an area that “allows the port to compensate for heavier, industrial development elsewhere on the agency’s lands.”

At a reported cost of $9 million, the work, according to Helmut Schmidt, Pierce County’s floodplain services supervisor, has essentially meant “turning back the hands of time.”

That includes planting new native vegetation, creating riparian habitat and providing temperature and predator refuges for fish and wildlife.

“That used to be a sloppy marsh with a creek that meanders through it, and it hasn’t been that for 100 years or more,” Schmidt said. “Nature is very specific. … It’s a mess with a purpose.”

Projects like these also have a purpose — or several. Along with reducing flooding and increasing needed salmon habitat, Rash says, the projects also carry a third potential benefit — protecting agricultural land for farmers.

At Clear Creek, flooding is predominantly a result of a floodgate along the Puyallup River levee that closes when river flows reach a certain level. When the gate is closed, it prevents river water from backing up into the creek and also prevents water that comes down the hillside from the Summit-Waller area during moderate to heavy rainfall from escaping into the river.

The problem at Clear Creek is indicative of decades of heavy-handed river management that essentially attempted to exert human-engineered control over the Puyallup (and plenty of other local rivers) in hopes of preventing flooding and allowing for development.

That’s what’s at the root of all of this work and precisely what floodplains restoration efforts like this one – which have been a goal since Pierce County adopted its first comprehensive flood management plan in 1991 — are now trying to reverse.

“Communities of the valley suffered from flooding, basically because they encroached and insisted on developing in a floodplain — which we know today to be a no-no,” said Russ Ladley, a resource protection manager with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “But those lessons were hard-learned, and back then the solution was to control the river.”

“The engineers set out to design, engineer and construct this improved conveyance, which basically took away all the ‘S’ turns in the river and created this straight channel,” Ladley continued. “And today, of course, we realize that’s not the best approach if we want to have a multi-purpose flood channel that provides for fish and wildlife values.”

In addition to the 45 acres included in the Upper Clear Creek Mitigation Site owned by the Port of Tacoma, Pierce County, with the help of grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has purchased nearly150 acres of land in the area since 2000 from willing sellers. The county paid market value for homes that suffered from repetitive flood damages, helping to get homeowners out of harm’s way and potentially providing a path for a much larger restoration effort in the future.

Someday, Schmidt said, much of this land between where Clear Creek enters the Puyallup River and where Clark’s Creek enters the Puyallup may be similarly protected.

“We have that land to do something with it, but we’re working with the communities to determine what that is going to be,” he said.

On a daylong tour, the van visited several other sites throughout the county where similar work is underway. In an area of Sumner now dominated by imposing warehouses, the White River soon will be allowed to spill across a system of braided channels where a golf course once operated. It will provide much-needed flood security and much-needed salmon habitat.

Our last stop took us to the South Fork Road Floodplain Restoration Project, near McMillian. Here a 48-acre, $4.5 million dollar project that’s been constructed in phases since 2013 recently was completed.

At Clear Creek, Schmidt said the necessity of work like this is straightforward — for residents, farmers, fish and orcas.

More than 5,000 acres of tidal and estuary habitat once existed for salmon in the Puyallup River delta, Schmidt noted.

Today, over 99 percent of that has been lost. Less than 100 acres remain.

“That’s why this piece is so important,” he said.

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