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Suquamish Tribe Teams Up to Protect Chico Creek Watershed’s Resources

CHICO (Nov. 19, 2003) – Over the past several decades, the Chico Creek watershed has been the most productive salmon system on the Kitsap Peninsula. Draining 68 miles of streams – 17 of which provide prime spawning and rearing habitat for salmon – the area remains mostly undeveloped.

On average, about 20,000 chum salmon return to the Chico Creek watershed each year. Coho salmon and steelhead are also supported by the system, along with a small number of Puget Sound chinook salmon, which are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Eventually, however, things will change. As more people move into Kitsap County, the demand for housing will increase. Development of the watershed seems inevitable. And too often an increase in infrastructure leads to a decrease in salmon habitat. But for the Chico Creek watershed, that scenario might not play out.

The Suquamish Tribe has joined forces with a group of citizens and stakeholders to try and weave future developments into the natural ecosystem without harming fish and wildlife. The plan illustrates how people with diverse interests can move beyond conflicts and create a common vision for the future. This approach is a microcosm of the one used by the Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, a cooperative effort that links ongoing wild salmon recovery initiatives at the tribal, state, federal and local levels. The decisions and commitments that emerge from the Chico watershed planning process will contribute to the Shared Strategy’s overall regional salmon recovery plan. More importantly, it provides a practical example of how to manage a watershed so that both people and fish can thrive.

"It's a novel approach because we are looking at development from the watershed perspective," said Tom Ostrom, environmental biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. The tribe, which has always depended on natural resources from the Chico Creek watershed, is involved in the planning process and has a representative on the Chico Creek Watershed Advisory Committee. "We are creating different scenarios and we are looking at the cumulative and long-term effects of those scenarios on the area's natural resources. The idea is to protect the watershed and it's fish and wildlife as the county continues to grow."

Before drafting a new Chico subarea plan, which would guide the development in the watershed, the Chico Creek Watershed Advisory Committee looked at different development scenarios that could take place. The committee explored the effect of development on the area's fish and wildlife under current zoning, and then came up with three "alternative futures," addressing scenarios that could happen to natural resources under different levels of development.

Conservation, development and moderate alternatives were all put to the test. Under each level of development, the number of housing units and amount of impervious surface in the watershed was determined and their effects on water quality, water quantity and wildlife habitat was examined.

According to the study:

  • Under current zoning, the 1,300 housing units in the watershed would increase to about 5,050. Impervious surfaces, such as streets, would go from 7.2 percent to 10.4 percent.
  • Under the conservation alternative, the number of housing units would increase to 2,600 and 8.8 percent of the watershed would be covered with impervious surfaces.
  • Under the development scenario, housing units would balloon to 25,000 and streets and driveways would take up 21.6 percent of the area.
  • Under the moderate scenario, housing units would increase to 4,900 and 9.2 percent of the area would be covered with impervious surfaces.

The process also helped identify a corridor important for wildlife within the Chico Creek watershed. In looking at the overall watershed instead of just political boundaries, the advisory committee discovered the corridor, said Paul Nelson, Kitsap County planner who is leading the team of scientists and community members. That big-picture approach also allowed the committee to identify other critical areas for fish and wildlife.

“We went through this process with that in mind, and at the same time we were providing for that growth that we know is coming,” Nelson said. “The watershed is not so big that we can’t get our arms around it, and that can go a long way toward protecting those resources”

Identifying what long-term impacts on the environment would occur under each alternative future scenario was helpful, said Phil Best, who represented the Great Peninsula Conservancy on the watershed committee. The group was able to look at all the tools available in the planning process.

“And we were letting science tell us what would happen,” Best said.

After looking at all the “future scenarios,” the committee suggested the moderate alternative as the preferred jumping off point to begin drafting the subarea plan. The moderate scenario represents a likely reality for the watershed because it recognizes the need for protecting natural resources while acknowledging that some development will occur over time.

A good example of this occurred when the group looked at water quality and quantity. Under the moderate scenario, the population in the watershed would significantly increase, but the type of development allowed would mitigate the impacts to water quality and quantity. This was possible because the moderate alternative focuses on areas designated for future potential growth, encouraging low-impact development practices.

In all scenarios, natural resources, particularly salmon, would be harmed. An increase in storm water run-off from impervious surfaces would take its toll on water quality, which plays a role in degrading salmon rearing and spawning habitat. That's why the Suquamish Tribe also is categorizing a list of possible improvements to salmon habitat in the watershed, such as replacing faulty culverts and removing unnecessary dikes.

"There are a number of ecological problems mostly in the lower watershed — along the main stem and into the estuary," Ostrom said. "We have a high density of chum salmon spawning in the area. The main stem has been confined by road crossings and the channel has been diked and armored with riprap. We are looking at a number of projects that would correct these problems and restore some of the historic floodplain."

Dri Ralph, who is the environmental planner for the City Of Bremerton and a committee member, said the science-based approach was a refreshing way to look at watershed planning. With so many participants on the committee, all the information regarding the stakeholders concerns was readily available.

“The next step is to take these different scenarios and develop land-use regulations,” Ralph said. “I think the process served a good purpose. Now, once we have a subarea plan, we will see if it transfers into responsible land use.”

For more information, contact: Tom Ostrom, environmental biologist for the Suquamish Tribe, (360) 394-8446, Darren Friedel, information officer Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 297-6546,


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