Published on Wed, Dec 18, 2013
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By Ian Ferguson
As executive director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA), Rachel Vasak spearheads dozens of river and creek restoration projects every year. Most projects involve incremental improvements to the watershed, the effects of which are measured through gradually increasing salmon populations over a number of years.

On rare occasions, a project comes along where top-to-bottom improvements can be made along the length of an entire stream, with the potential to reopen what was once an historic salmon run. The project along Terrell Creek is an example, and 10 years of hard work are starting to pay off.

The removal of six barriers along the creek began in 2003 and ended last December when crews replaced an 8-foot concrete dam with a graded creek bed that allows fish to swim into Lake Terrell. Frank Corey, a resource coordinator for the Whatcom Conservation District, was in charge of the dam replacement project. Following the dam reconstruction, he and Vasak saw wild chum salmon enter Lake Terrell for the first time in more than 50 years.

“We heard fish were there, so we went down and sure enough we could watch fish jumping over the barrier and going into Lake Terrell,” Corey said. “It was pretty darn cool.”

Terrell Creek is a small stream with a big history. In 1792, George Vancouver moored his ship HMS Discovery near its mouth in Birch Bay and filled the crew’s water casks with its fresh water. Before that, Native Americans fished for salmon along its banks. In the 1950s, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (then called the Department of Game) dammed Terrell Creek at a marshy area just north of Ferndale to create a bird-hunting preserve. The dam created 500-acre Lake Terrell, and the upper part of what was once Terrell Creek was renamed Butler Creek.

The dam created in the ’50s was a concrete barrier with an 8-foot drop to the creek bed below. It was impassable for fish but it also made the flow of Terrell Creek intermittent in the summer, to the point where it often dried up. Development along the banks of the creek, especially near its mouth in Birch Bay, further contributed to declining water quality to the point where salmon were rarely, if ever, seen in the creek’s upper reaches.

Vasak began eyeing the creek as a candidate for recovery in the early 2000s. “We conducted a study of the watershed and identified six barriers to salmon passage, including thick growths of canary reed grass, inaccessible culverts and the dam itself,” she said.

Starting at Birch Bay and working their way up the creek, volunteers from NSEA, the Whatcom Conservation District and other groups including the Chums of Terrell Creek began removing barriers and restoring habitat.

Corey explained that Terrell Creek was an attractive project to work on partly because much of its length runs through the property of a few cooperative landowners, notably the BP Cherry Point Refinery.

“When there are dozens of landowners and not all of them are cooperative, it’s tough to make wholesale improvements, but a lot of the intact habitat along Terrell Creek is owned by BP and they’ve been really supportive of all the restoration work in that watershed,” Corey said. 

Most of the funding for the dam replacement came from BP and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, as well as local fundraisers such as the Chums of Terrell Creek.

The dam replacement required the reconstruction of nearly 700 feet of creek bed below the dam. Crews filled it with more than 2,300 tons of hardpan material, compacted and graded it to a 1 percent slope, then covered the hardpan material with 500 tons of gravel to create salmon-spawning grounds. They then planted trees and shrubs along its length, and the entire section is now a shaded, babbling brook coming from the lake.

More than 60 employees from the Ferndale ALCOA plant volunteered to help build the dam. Along with dam replacement, project coordinators installed remote site incubators in order to reintroduce a native stock of chum to the creek. Volunteers with NSEA and other organizations monitor more than 5,000 eggs currently housed in the two incubators just below the dam.

At a tour of the dam December 7, Vasak showed visitors a depression in the creek bottom that had been hollowed out by a male salmon. Called a salmon redd, the depression is made so the female can lay her eggs.

Vasak took it as a good sign of the creek’s health.

“It’s been amazing to see this creek transform into viable salmon habitat,” she said.