It’s no secret the Chehalis Basin has a water problem.
Sometimes there’s not enough of the stuff in waterways and at other times, particularly during the winter months, there is too much.
But Washington’s second-largest watershed is no stranger to creative solutions.
On Wednesday, members of the League of Women Voters of Thurston County and the Sierra Club toured a number of sites within the Scatter Creek and Skookumchuck sub-basins that address issues around groundwater and streamflow.
The tour, put on by the Chehalis Basin Partnership, focused on projects funded in the basin through the Streamflow Restoration Act, a 2018 Washington state law passed to help restore streamflows to levels necessary to support sustainable salmon populations while providing water for homes in rural Washington. The law was a result of the Washington state Supreme Court’s Hirst Decision.
Watersheds were also required by law to develop plans to offset impacts of permanent-exempt wells, many through community projects — 73 in the Chehalis, specifically — that will bring water back into their system resulting in a net ecological benefit.
“What we want to do with this tour is help build enthusiasm for these project types that have not happened on the ground in our basin yet,” said Kirsten Harma, watershed coordinator for Chehalis Basin Partnership
One of the projects was located at the Scatter Creek Wildlife Recreation Area. Ned Pittman, program director of the Coast Salmon Partnership, said the Scatter Creek area is prime fish habitat with “some of the thickest coho habitat in the basin.”
The predominantly spring-fed creek feeds stable, cold water through Scatter Creek and into the Chehalis River. Though it doesn’t flood currently, looking out into the decades ahead the creek is expected to flood more in the winter and get drier in the summer. Work done on the creek is expected to sustain the quality feed of the creek for decades to come.
“This is one creek we expect to see fish in in 2080,” Pittman said.
The Scatter Creek Wildlife Recreation and its basin have been closed to new water appropriation permits since 1953, though it is still open to permit-exempt wells, said Kevin Hansen, Thurston County hydrologist.
In downtown Rochester, Thurston County built an amphitheater-like stormwater pond called the Albany Street Stormwater pond in 2019 thanks to a $1.2 million Department of Ecology grant. The project is expected to offset substantial flooding on nearby surface streets and utilize the stormwater to recharge a local aquifer.
The pond during the summer months can also serve as an amphitheater for the nearby neighborhood, and a walking path allows walkers and runners to circumnavigate the pond.
Thurston County Commissioner Tye Menser, whose district encompasses the western side of the county and who tagged along on the tour, said he’d heard from locals that this area had been a problem spot for flooding due to failing stormwater pipes.
“When I got on the board, there was a real sense that Rochester had not been given proper attention,” he said, comparing the unincorporated town in size to that of Yelm, just without the “sort of municipal planning and attention that it probably needs.”
The Albany Street Stormwater Pond is expected to collect and soak in the same amount of water as a football field flooded 12 stories high over the course of a year.
The county is working to bring more public works improvements to the area, Menser said, including attention to the town’s main street along U.S. Highway 12.
At the headwaters of Scatter Creek, over in the Cozy Valley located southeast of Tenino, Creekside Conservancy has worked to conserve about 1,200 acres of land. Nearby waterways see juvenile salmon that tend to rear in the headwaters all summer long, said Chanele Holbrook, director of Creekside Conservancy.
Streamflow projects on the properties look to slow the rainfall-fed head waters that accumulate in the towering valley, improve beaver habitat and reintroduce native species of shrubbery to the wetland, which for many decades prior was used by farmers.
“This is kind of what I call a teacup project. It’s a very small project, in the larger scale of the Chehalis Basin, with the sole purpose of holding and containing water,” Holbrook said. “Scatter Creek is the largest contributor of cool, clear, clean water to the Chehalis Basin. A lot of people don’t know that. We’re small, but we’re mighty.”
Holbrook said there’s been times during flooding within the valley where their neighbors can’t get out of their driveway and she’ll have to shovel salmon.
A plan is also being hatched to preserve 12 miles of streamflow of the Skookumchuck River in perpetuity, and by extension aquatic wildlife and fish, through a major water rights acquisition. The Quinault Indian Nation is currently considering and looking at the feasibility of purchasing a large portion of TransAlta’s water rights by way of mitigation credits, a similar move that’s been pursued by the cities of Centralia and Chehalis.
When TransAlta shutters its final steam burner in 2025, its need for water along the Skookumchuck will diminish. According to the Chehalis Basin Partnership, the tribe’s assessment will consider the amount of water that could be permitted over from Ecology, evaluation of the instream flow benefit to both the Skookumchuck and Chehalis rivers, and the price.
Quinault’s feasibility study was paid for by way of a $148,000 Ecology grant.
“Quinault really liked the idea of being involved in the project. It speaks directly to the Streamflow Restoration Act,” said Lauren Macfarland, fish habitat section lead with Quinault, adding later: “We’d love to purchase as much as TransAlta will give us.”