Giving Local Salmon a Fighting Chance

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San Juan County’s sole remaining wild salmon run may have been doomed to extinction until a last-minute agreement to increase water flow gave the fish a chance.

A small population of coho salmon spawn in lower Cascade Creek near the Orcas Island hamlet of Olga. In 2016, the San Juan County Land Bank purchased a corridor along the stream—now called Coho Preserve—to protect the habitat for its native salmon and coastal cutthroat trout. Several years of low stream flows, however, have prevented the salmon from reproducing successfully. With coho on a three-year life cycle, 2019 could be the last opportunity for this population to reproduce.

Cascade Creek originates at Mountain Lake in Moran State Park and flows to Buck Bay and has been called “one of the most natural stream systems to be found anywhere in Washington,” but multiple entities own water rights that affect the flow available to fish.

Fisheries biologist, Jenny De Groot, monitors Cascade Creek for the Land Bank and sounded the alarm this October when she saw that the water level was too low to support returning spawners. When apprised of the emergency, Orcas Water Holdings, which holds the senior water right to the stream, agreed to reduce their diversion and increase the water flowing down Cascade Creek during this fall’s spawning months.

“We’re thrilled and thankful that water flow is being boosted during this critical time,” says Lincoln Bormann, Director of the San Juan County Land Bank. “More water means a better chance our local salmon will survive, spawn and begin rebuilding a healthy population to take advantage of the beautiful habitat we’ve preserved.”

When reached for comment, a spokesman for Orcas Water Holdings said, “Go Team Coho!” Two coho salmon were observed in the creek as of last week, with one actively building a redd (nest).

If you visit Coho Preserve and see fish in the stream, please observe them from a distance, as any disturbance could prevent them from spawning.

To find out more about what the Land Bank is doing to help salmon recovery on our preserves, contact Orcas Preserve Steward, Peter Guillozet, at peterg@sjclandbank.org.