Boots on the ground: Restoring habitat through partnerships in Bellingham

On Earth Day 2019, Washington Conservation Corps is thrilled to highlight nearly two decades of close partnership with City of Bellingham. The city began sponsoring WCC field crews after the tragic 1999 Olympic Pipe Line explosion in Whatcom Creek. Our AmeriCorps members’ activities along Whatcom County’s rivers and streams have helped restore more than 160 acres of critical habitat on 70 properties throughout the city and Lake Whatcom watershed. Our members serving with City of Bellingham are continuing to improve habitat along these riparian corridors to help restore local salmon runs that have suffered due to increased urbanization.

Four AmeriCorps members stand over a smolt trap in a river, holding clipboards and measuring tools.
WCC AmeriCorps members record smolt trap data. Photo contributed by Paul Argites and Nick Saling.

Donning waders and counting fish

Sometimes, a day of service on these crews means donning hip waders and counting fish! Recently, AmeriCorps members helped build the city’s first smolt trap in Padden Creek. Smolt are juvenile salmon getting ready to migrate from fresh water to the ocean. Smolt traps temporarily and safely trap any fish migrating through a water passage. Our members learned the ins and outs of smolt trap construction, and continue to help monitor these traps. In Spring 2018, members recorded more than 3,689 juvenile fish in the Padden Creek trap in a single day! 
Evaluating how fish are using a creek after habitat enhancement plays an important role in efforts to recover salmon.  “This documentation benefits these species by informing future restoration designs as well as providing data to support funding future enhancement projects,” said Sara Brooke Benjamin, coordinator for Bellingham’s environmental monitoring program.

Daylighting Padden Creek

The smolt trap in Padden Creek help researchers learn about the effectiveness of the Padden Creek “daylighting” project. City of Bellingham re-routed a large section of the creek that had flowed through a concrete tunnel since the 1890s. The city constructed a nearly mile-long creek channel to replace the tunnel. Members kicked off the planting phase of the project, installing more than 15,000 native plants and ensuring freshly installed plants survived their first spring. The project has helped restore fish passage, improve water quality, and reduce flood risks for nearby residents.
A hand holds a bare root plant stem, while the other hand packs soil around the base.
Our members installed more than 15,000 native plants as part of the Padden Creek Daylight project. Photo by WCC/Ecology.
WCC crews also conducted surveys for spawning salmon and their nests, called “redds.” During spring 2016, crew members walked about two miles of Padden Creek, searching for salmon and redds and recording data. Those surveys revealed that chum salmon can now access and are spawning in parts of the creek previously inaccessible to them!

Engaging the community

In addition to the restoration activities, community engagement plays an important role in project success. “The crews facilitated greater community understanding and participation by helping host three community work parties along our city streams,” said Analiese Burns, habitat restoration manager for City of Bellingham. “These crew members have contributed to our quality of life and in return, they leave with the skills necessary to continue their career of service.”

Watch a smolt trap in action

Visit City of Bellingham’s website to watch a short video on how smolt traps work, and visit Ecology's website to learn more about riparian restoration efforts in Whatcom County and statewide.

Join WCC

We are currently accepting applications for 3-month member positions! Learn more and apply on our website. Ecology's Washington Conservation Corps, an AmeriCorps program, provides hands-on experience, field skills, and training opportunities to young adults between 18 and 25 and military veterans. WCC consists of three subprograms: the original WCC, Veteran Conservation Corps and Puget SoundCorps.
Five AmeriCorps members and a crew supervisor sit on a large log with an alpine lake in the background

This could be your office! WCC AmeriCorps members serving in Skagit County take a lunch break. Photo contributed by Josh Boswell.