Bellingham wins national award for re-routing salmon back to Squalicum Creek

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- From the busy bees to he rabbits along the shoreline, Squalicum Creek already draws a lot of visitors. Construction partially wrapped up on the Phase two to reroute Squalicum Creek -- a project to create a better habitat for salmon.

"The point of this project was to put it in a more confined channel and put shade over it, which will happen in the next 10-15 years so that we can reduce the stream temperatures so it’s better for salmon," said Renee LaCroix, Assistant Director for the City of Bellingham's Department of Natural Resources.

Phase two of the project cost about $1.9 million and was completed two years ago as both a city and community wide effort -- one of many -- after a deadly pipeline explosion almost 20 years ago. In 2015, phases one and two of the Squalicum Creek reroute project won a national award from the American Public Works Association as "Public Works Project of the Year".

"Gasoline went into the creek for several miles downstream and it actually ended up igniting," said LaCroix. "The community lost three lives in that incident and huge environmental damage and so that really kick started our habitat restoration program."

Since than the city's Natural Resources Department has completed 170 other large and small habitat restoration projects.

"Since that has happened I think the citizens of Bellingham have really placed a higher value on these ecological systems," said LaCroix.

That's why the city rerouted Squalicum Creek, which had at one point funneled into Sunset Pond and became disconnected from the flood plain. The water would heat up, creating poor water quality and unhealthy temperatures for sustaining salmon habitat.

Now LaCroix says they migrate from the north side of Bellingham Bay in the fall and come up to the stream to spawn, with their eggs incubating along the quiet, shaded creek.

The design is all very intentional. From the trees that came down to place the rerouted course, to the new trees bought and brought in from offsite.

"We had to take down all the trees in the path of the creek but we tried to leave everything else," said LaCroix. "We did have some trees on site but we also purchased a lot from offsite and brought them in and created these log jams that help the stream maintain its structure over time, and also provide great fish habitat. So they create the pools and the ripples that the stream has that are healthy. They create pools and ripples for salmon habitat."

The project, which has been monitored to ensure it was a good use of taxpayer money, saw salmon return to the creek almost immediately.

"We didn’t expect to see temperature improvements in the creek so soon after the project because it doesn’t have full canopy coverage yet," said LaCroix. "But we’re already seeing reductions in stream temperature. We’re already seeing salmon moving up into the system so that’s really encouraging."

The salmon aren't the only ones who have returned.

So have the deer and the dogs, walking alongside walkers and joggers -- who appreciate not only the new fish passage and habitat but the new open spaces created for the community.