(Recent video of salmon spawners in Longfellow Creek by Betsy Bertiaux)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“Don’t be depressed, be optimistic.”
That was the advice of one panelist during a West Seattle discussion of Longfellow Creek – its status, its future, its challenges. He was only speaking about one of the latter, but his advice was an appropriate exhortation for all in attendance.
The attendance itself was cause for optimism – all the chairs set out in the Duwamish Longhouse‘s main hall, and some of the benches around the room, were filled with people there “to learn about and celebrate Longfellow Creek,” as Elizabeth Rudrud of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society said in her introduction. Its Log House Museum has been hosting an exhibit about the creek, and one of the reasons for the November 8 gathering was to springboard off that.
Sharon Leishman of the Duwamish Alive Coalition also said she was heartened “to see this many people interested in our wonderful creek,” one of only two salmon-bearing tributaries in the Duwamish River watershed.
Photojournalist Tom Reese began his presentation with an update on those salmon – that day, he said, Longfellow Creek had seen “at least 17 live adult coho spawners,” and he had also noted three dead ones, as well as “about 40 baby salmon living in the creek almost a year now.” He declared, with wonder, “There are salmon spawning in the city of Seattle less than four miles from the Space Needle!” But most of the salmon who make it into the creeik die before thy can spawn because they’ve been poisoned (more on that later).
Still, it’s better than the years in which Longfellow – which Reese imagined had once been a “magnificent salmon stream” – was a “ditch, an open sewer,’ barren of salmon for perhaps half a century. Now the creek is “back from the dead” and the salmon are arriving each year, even though, as Reese described, “to get to Longfellow Creek they have to choose to go into a pipe that travels 2/3 of a mile underground” before daylighting.
He held the audience in rapt attention as he showed photos and video of the salmon, other wildlife, and the human-made features along Longfellow Creek, like the fishbone bridge. If you haven’t been to the Log House Museum to see his images in the Longfellow exhibit, don’t miss it.
The human influence on the creek was at the heart of the next speaker’s presentation. Seattle Public Utilities‘ Katherine Lynch spoke of impervious surface covering more than half the Longfellow watershed – and that has resulted in overflows like this.
(December 2007 reader photo, 26th/Juneau)
She had more perspective on the creek – four miles long, one of six salmon-bearing creeks of 50 total Seattle creeks, and the second-largest creek watershed (after Thornton). The valley through which it flows was carved by glaciers, not the creek itself. It floods because there’s not enough room for the water, not enough storage or absorption area, but Lynch says that can be fixed – as they’ve done with Thornton. As a result of “completely rebuil(ding) the channel,” Lynch said, Thornton no longer floods its neighborhood. It does provide “more fish and wildlife habitat and open space for people.”
She said they want to “reconnect” the creek in five places.
At another spot, she said, beavers have already reconnected the flood plain – “they’re here to stay.” 19 beaver dams have been counted on Longfellow Creek, she added, and they’re working with Beavers Northwest to figure out how to incorporate beavers into the project. There’s so much potential for the creek’s future, she emphasized, with one yearly count totaling up to 500 coho and 100 chum. “Floodplain reconnection offers many benefits and holds huge promise.”
That goes for the humans along the creek too, affirmed Caroline Borsenik, Environmental Programs Director for the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association. While a large part of DNDA’s mission is managing affordable-housing facilities, environmental programs are another big part, and, she said, in 2016, DNDA shifted a lot of its work to Longfellow Creek. Working with the Green Seattle Partnership, they work on restoration with volunteers – mostly removing invasive plants and installing native varieties. Many of those volunteers are youths, Borsenik explained, noting that Delridge has one of the highest percentages of youth among Seattle neighborhoods – 50 percent under 18, 60 percent students.
The 6,000-square-foot wetland park site – a former City Light substation just north of Louisa Boren STEM K-8 – has been deeded to the city, but DNDA is overseeing development and program operation. Construction is almost complete, with features that resulted from design charrettes with community members including students (Boren students have been going there since 2016) – an outdoor classroom is among the features. A new crosswalk connecting the park to the school is planned.
As for Roxhill Bog – as we’ve reported, it has a hydrology problem but a coalition is working on solving that, possibly via barriers in wetland cells. Borsenik said the project is in the permit phase and “on the way to being fully funded,” so it may finally happen next year.
The next speaker had new information about an existential threat to Longfellow Creek’s salmon – yet he was the one who voiced optimism, too.
University of Washington Center for Urban Waters researcher Ed Kolodziej revealed how they realized that a chemical from “tire dust” was killing salmon. It took the help of “citizen scientists” to report sick fish to researchers who then ran to the creek to sample the water in which the fish were getting ill, so it could be analyzed. Ultimately, he said, 57 chemicals were in the waters where salmon died – and they narrowed it down to a preservative for tire rubber called 6PPD-Quinone. There’s an average of one pound of it in each car, to keep tires from cracking – “in every tire in the world so far as we know,” Kolodziej said, so “all of us have a role in it.” (Electric cars are worse, he noted, since they’re heavier, so creating more “tire dust.”) Runoff with this chemical is so pervasive that “90 percent of returning salmon at Longfellow Creek die before they can spawn.” It’s also toxic to some other fish species, including brook trout and rainbow trout (and presumably steelhead), plus more species in forthcoming research.
So they know the problem. What can be done about it? For one, “a massive amount” of stormwater treatment.
Most cost-effective, though, Kolodziej said, would be to “make ‘salmon safe’ tires.” But the tire companies say that might take 20 years; he contends it could be done more quickly.
(By the way, he said this isn’t just a tire problem – if you have black rubber soles on your shoes, that could be contributing, as could the waste rubber used in surfacing for playgrounds and playfields.)
But this has received a lot of attention, and in fact, hours before the Duwamish Longhouse event, a new lawsuit was announced, filed by fishing-related organizations. Less than a week before that, the EPA granted a petition seeking its review of the problem.
So, Kolodziej summarized, “Don’t be depressed, br optimistic, we know what we need to do.
The evening ended on a lighter note with writer Kelly Brenner offering advice on how to be a “naturalist at home” – and of course in your local nature areas, such as along Longfellow Creek. She had more than 20 points of advice:
Learn to use all your senses
Visit unusual places
Change your perspective
BE ETHICAL & SAFE
Keep a nature journal
Go pond-dipping (scoop out water and see what you find)
Create a wetland in a jar
Make a bathyscope
Preserve animal tracks & signs
Find your face mites (everybody has face mites so you might as well get to know them)
Go sugaring for moths
Make a berlese funnel
Make a pitfall trap
Go bush beating
Make a habitat terrarium
Preserve a spider web
Make a mushroom spore print
Grow slime molds
Make tree bar rubbings
Grow a microbial garden
Learn the language of nature
Create a curiosity cabinet
After the panelists finished speaking, many attendees lingered to talk, perhaps about their newfound knowledge of what is, and could be, ahead for Longfellow Creek. As Sharon Leishman had said early in the evening, “All of us here, we are all stewards of these lands and waters … what we do in our daily lives has ani impact on these lands and waters.”