The mountains are bare. The streams are low. The banks of the Skagit River are exposed.
“The sisters are bald as can be,” Blanchard resident Pat Bunting said while looking up at Mount Baker and Twin Sisters Mountain from the Samish Flats.
This year’s drought will be worse than the last statewide drought in 2005, and the region’s fisheries are expected to suffer.
“I think we’re shaping up to have a really epic, bad situation this summer,” Upper Skagit Indian Tribe Natural Resources Director Scott Schuyler said.
The Skagit River, which supports five species of salmon, is unusually low.
“I’ve seen it this low, but usually it’s September or so,” Mount Vernon fisherman Phil Renfro said while casting a line from Young’s Bar on the opening day of the Skagit River sockeye salmon season nearly two weeks ago.
On June 9, the state’s snowpack officially disappeared. On Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that the Skagit and Sauk rivers were among several in the state to set daily record lows, and according to the state Department of Ecology, many streams are the lowest they have been in 64 years.
A focus on fish
The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe is documenting low stream flows near the reservation east of Sedro-Woolley.
Shallow water tends to be warmer, which doesn’t bode well for young fish still in the streams, fisheries managers say. Low flows can also hinder the return of adult fish to their spawning grounds.
“We observed the water disappear about three to four weeks ahead of time,” Schuyler said while standing on a bank of the nearly empty Red Creek.
Red and Hansen creeks, which are known to support salmon, are at levels typically seen in the fall. The creeks feed into the tribe’s hatchery, which was shut down early this year because of low stream flows.
The coho raised by the tribe were released in May, about a month ahead of schedule.
The tribe would have preferred to keep the fish longer so they could grow larger and have a better chance of surviving, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe biologist Jon-Paul Shannahan said.
Shannahan and Schuyler are concerned that low water levels will mean less habitat this summer for young coho, steelhead and chinook living in the upper reaches of the Skagit River watershed.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is also concerned about salmon and steelhead populations.
Some small streams ran dry by mid-June, said Fish and Wildlife biologist Brett Barkdull, who works out of the agency’s La Conner office. Among them is Red Cabin Creek, a tributary to the Skagit River.
“It’s about as simple as this: Fish need water. If your stream is dry, there is no habitat,” Barkdull said.
Low water means lower survival rates for fish such as steelhead, coho, cutthroat, bull trout and some chinooks that spend their first year in freshwater streams.
Fewer surviving fish will likely mean smaller runs of coho returning in 2017, and steelhead in 2018 and 2019, Barkdull said.
And if the low flows continue into the fall, they could affect the adult chinook, coho, chum and pinks that return to the watershed to spawn between August and February.
“This summer’s predicament has the potential to cause havoc,” Shannahan said.
Fish and Wildlife saw the effects of low stream flows on fish passage during the 2005 drought. Barkdull said the number of steelhead returning in 2009 fell as a result.
“You can directly relate that to the low-flow situation we had in 2005. That was definitely why steelhead numbers collapsed,” he said. “You just didn’t have these tributaries where steelhead rear. They dried up, so we had a lot of smolt (young fish) production lost.”
Habitat is vanishing even more quickly this year.
“The public should be aware that the fishing outlook could be pretty bleak the next few years,” Schuyler said. “The bottom line is salmon need cool water, and we’re going to be short on that.”
Watching the water
The tribe is keeping a close eye on the water.
A series of monitors track the temperature of Hansen Creek, which is a tributary to the Skagit River. The tribe also records the height, width and flow of the stream at least once a month.
Upper Skagit Indian Tribe Environmental Planning and Community Development Manager Lauren Rich said her department has seen “the early onset of the late summer flow conditions” in Hansen Creek.
Data collected June 15 showed the water was almost as low then as it was in August 2013.
The flow usually doesn’t drop to 3 cubic feet per second until at least the end of July, according to Ecology data. This year, it reached that mark on June 9.
A similar trend has been noted for Friday Creek and the north fork of Nookachamps Creek, according to Ecology.
Both Friday and Nookachamps are much lower than normal for June and are significantly lower than during the last statewide drought, Ecology hydrologist Don Watt said.
In 2005, Ecology saw the Nookachamps fall below 5 cubic feet per second the first week of August. This year, it reached 3 cubic feet per second in June, and it continues to drop.
If the creek gets low enough to break the connection with the Skagit River, fish won’t be able to make their way to upstream spawning grounds later in the year, Upper Skagit Tribe environmental biologist Lisa Hainey said.
Young fish could also become trapped upriver as the water supply dries up, Hainey said.
Usually these extremely low water levels occur later in the year and don’t last long.
“This is what August looks like, and usually by the next month the rain starts and by October, (the creek) really gets moving again,” Rich said.
Rain is not expected to replenish the creeks that feed the Skagit River anytime soon.
According to the National Weather Service, .26 inches of rain has fallen in the area through June 24, according to data from the Bellingham International Airport. That’s 1.31 inches below normal, meteorologist Johnny Berg said.
Between January and June, the Skagit Valley received an estimated 19.85 inches of precipitation as of Thursday. By the end of June last year, the area has received 33.95 inches of precipitation.
Not much more rain, if any, is expected through the end of the month, Berg said.
That has those who work with the area’s fisheries concerned.
“(The drought of) 2005 looks like a flood compared to what we’re having now,” Fish and Wildlife’s Barkdull said.
The warm, dry conditions that resulted in the snowpack-related drought are expected to worsen through August, according to the state Climate Prediction Center’s seasonal outlook.