Thursday, July 30, 2015

How's the Nooksack Doing?

Tropical salmon, photographed in the South Fork of the Nooksack.
  Salmon are very adaptable.
I’ve been out of town for most of July.  From afar, I see that low water levels and high temperatures are killing off fish in the Columbia River, the Snake River in Idaho, and some rivers in Oregon.  

Bummer for them, right?  But they’re not OUR fish.  Who can tell me how the Nooksack is doing?

I know, I know, there’s nothing to worry about.  Whatcom County has “plenty of water.”  That’s the favorite line of the state Department of Ecology, which is charged with making sure that there's enough water in the Nooksack to keep fish alive.  Similarly, our local opinion-leaders in the building industry and the Tea Party folks insist that we’re wasting water by leaving so much in the rivers. (See my earlier blog, in which I relay their clarion call that “The fish are drowning!”)

But could it be that Whatcom County has “plenty of water” in the same way that the water expert told Vashon that it has plenty of water:  “There’s no lack of water on Vashon, he said; all you have to do is dry up the streams”?

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a website with some monitoring data from a few sites on the Nooksack.  I’m not sure what the previous hisorical minimum level was on the South Fork of the Nooksack at Saxon Bridge at this time of the year, because the river is off the charts – below the previous minimum. Every day sets a new record.

But still, Ecology says we have plenty of water, so that can’t matter.  Low water means warmer water.  How about on the South Fork at Saxon Bridge?

 It’s a treat for salmon to bask in 74-degree water, right?

Perhaps not.  Back in 2012, Ecology published a report on “South Fork Nooksack Water Temperature.”   For the water nerds among us, this is because the South Fork has a TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load, for temperature.

The report says:  “The South Fork Nooksack River watershed is impaired by high water temperatures.”  The figure below shows the South Fork watershed. 

Note water temperature standards.  16 degrees Celsius is equivalent to 60.8 degrees Fahrenheit.  12 degrees C = 53.6 degrees F. 

As the report notes,
“Temperature levels fluctuate over the day and night in response to changes in climatic conditions and river flows.  Since the health of aquatic species is tied predominately to the pattern of maximum temperatures, the water quality criteria are expressed as the highest 7-day average of the daily maximum temperatures occurring in a water body.”
The 7-day average for July 20-26, a period that takes in that little cloudburst that cooled down water temperature, was around 66.8 degrees – or 6 degrees higher than the water quality standards.  And this is July. Not August.

But of course, that’s the South Fork.  In a state full of fishery closures, “the only Whatcom County river affected is the south fork of the Nooksack River,” chirps the Bellingham Herald. 

So let’s look on the bright side.  Everything is OK everywhere else, right?

Looking on the bright side, NOAA predicts that the Nooksack at Ferndale may get as high as, or perhaps even get a little higher than, the previous historical low flow during the first few days of August.  In other words, there may be a few days in our future when the Nooksack isn’t setting a low flow historical record at Ferndale.  See, plenty of water!

What about temperature?  The 7-day average from July 20-26, taking into account the summer rain, is 64.3 degrees. That's less than 65. 

That’s something.  How good is “something”?  All I know is that  in 2008, the latest year for which NOAA posted a report with annual data, the highest single-day water temperature at the Nooksack in Ferndale in July was 59 degrees.  The highest single-day temperature of the year, in August, was 62.6 degrees. 

A 7-day average of 64.8 looks a bit warmish, relatively speaking. Perhaps the salmon are shaking the wrinkles out of their tropical attire.

Because August is coming. 

August is coming, and then Winter is Coming (note allusion to popular culture), and then all of the currently-dead salmon will revive in our abundant waters.  That’s how I understand Ecology’s position, which is that Whatcom County has PLENTY OF WATER!* *except for a few months.

And so.  Since the streams aren’t dry in Whatcom County, there’s plenty of water.  For people. 

In one of the articles that I linked to previously, the author discusses conflicts between fish and humans.  “In Washington," he observes, "salmon have a special place in the calculations. Endangered Species Act listings and the treaty rights of Indian tribes make it impossible to just forget about the fish.”

The thing is, nobody’s paying any attention to the Endangered Species Act in Whatcom County.  Ecology’s instream flow for the Nooksack was calculated before the Endangered Species Act salmon listings, and Ecology has acknowledged publicly that it doesn’t meet ESA requirements. 

Tribal rights?  They’re out there.  People talk about them a lot.  And then they ignore them.  The Lummi are working to get people to pay attention.  That’s a process that’s heading somewhere or nowhere right now.

But, in the meantime – can somebody tell me how the Nooksack is doing? 

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