Grant provides money to take a close look at Maxwelton Creek
June 25, 2008 · Updated 1:27 PM
"Maxwelton Salmon Adventure's John Hastings stands at the creek's tide gate, which prevent salmon from returning. A new study will recommend ways to fix the problem.Jim Larsen / staff photoAfter years of planting thousands of tiny salmon only to see few if any adult fish return, Maxwelton Creek salmon supporters finally have enough money to start doing something about the problem.The Maxwelton Salmon Adventure organization has received $133,000 to study the lower reaches of Maxwelton Creek. The money comes from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, which dispersed $31.8 million statewide for 147 salmon enhancement projects.The idea at Maxwelton is to find a way to make the area more fish-friendly, according to Rene Neff, a Salmon Adventure founder who, as an intermediate school teacher, has helped students introduce thousands of salmon eggs and fry into the creek over the years.Unfortunately, only a handful of salmon return each year. She said salmon egg efforts by various area residents date back over 30 years, with minimal returns.Studies have shown that young salmon do well after they hatch in the creek. Thanks to a new effort to count outgoing coho smolt, Neff said, We now know that coho are surviving for a year in Maxwelton Creek and are in good health as they leave the system.The problem is the limited return when the salmon come back to spawn after spending time in the open sea. They literally can't get up to the creek due to problems caused in large part by a tide gate. The Washington Conservation Commission recently completed an analysis of all watersheds in Island County that lists the tide gate as the most serious factor limiting salmon access to Maxwelton Creek.Early last century tide gates were constructed to protect low-lying agricultural lands created by dikes from saltwater intrusion. The location of the current Maxwelton gate dates back to 1960. In 1990, older top-hinged flap gates were replaced with side mounted flap gates, which was supposed to make it easier for fish to swim up the creek. It hasn't worked. The tide gates are automatically closed by the rising tide, preventing fish from entering the creek at the most opportune time.The tide gate also keeps juvenile salmon from leaving the creek under ideal high tide conditions. In addition, the fish must pass through 200 feet of culvert to reach the creek. And finally, for fish migrating to the sea, there is no estuary, an area of mixed salt water and fresh water, which provides food and protection to the young salmon before they enter the open waters of Puget Sound.Oldtimers tell the proverbial tale of seeing salmon so thick in the creek that they could almost walk across them, but those days ended with the dikes and tide gates.The Salmon Adventure will use the $133,000 grant to study the historic conditions of the lower reaches of the creek, the current status of the estuary and tide gate, and the resulting impacts on fish passage, habitat, land use and water quality. Consultants in fisheries, hydrology and engineers will be hired to complete a thorough study.We're hiring pros to help us figure out the alternatives, said Laura Fox, Maxwelton Salmon Adventure administrator, on Monday. The tide gates were designed to keep the salt water out, not necessarily to help the salmon.Neff said the Salmon Recovery Funding Board grant application was written with the assistance of landowners in the Maxwelton Valley, and that their participation in the study is encouraged. "