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Unmapped creeks go unprotected | Ghost Streams
This is part 1 in a continuing series about water typing in North Kitsap. Find links, maps and more photos on our water typing resource page.
The stream Jamie Glasgow is wading through could easily be mistaken for a ditch. Pickups rumble by on Hansville Road, a few feet above the creek’s banks. Beer bottles stud its silty bottom. None of that matters to Glasgow on this sunny July morning. He’s stalking a fish.
With a sudden motion, Glasgow plunges his dipnet beneath a grassy overhang and brings it back up with a shout.
Sure enough, a tiny, juvenile trout is wriggling in the mesh of the net.
“It shouldn’t be, but it’s still a surprise to find salmonids in streams like this,” said Glasgow, director of science for the non-profit Wild Fish Conservancy. “It’s so easy to write them off. It’s a ditch.”
What’s more surprising? This fish and this creek shouldn’t be here.
A glance at an official state water typing map shows Finn Creek flowing toward the beach several hundred feet to the east. The stream and its fish habitat are marked authoritatively in dark blue, crossing an adjacent field. This seemingly small error is representative of a pervasive problem.
Water typing maps — created by the state Department of Natural Resources and relied on by most local governments for safeguarding stream habitat — are widely inaccurate and incomplete. A creek mapped in the wrong place or missed entirely may not receive the development buffers and protections it should under state law. By the same token, a non-existent stream erroneously marked as “fish bearing” can be a headache for property owners.
The Fish Conservancy is in its second year surveying streams in North Kitsap with grants from the state Salmon Recovery Board. The teams check the Natural Resources water typing maps for accuracy, while gathering stream and habitat data that can inform restoration work. Their findings are startling. One survey of Cowling Creek, north of Suquamish, found that Natural Resources maps missed 66 percent of the watershed, including four miles of fish-bearing streams.
The Fish Conservancy’s work is valuable, but a real solution needs to come from the state, said Kathy Peters, who heads the West Sound Watershed Council and works through Kitsap’s Department of Community Development.
“As local jurisdictions, we need to speak out on this, loud and clear,” she said.
Wild Fish Conservancy Field Technician Frank Staller takes field notes July 28 on Hansville's Finn Creek. (Tad Sooter photo)
A ‘best guess’
The Department of Natural Resources didn’t have strip malls and townhouses in mind when it first developed its water typing maps in the 1970s.
What it needed was a way to locate and protect wetland habitat in areas being logged. To do this, the agency began mapping streams using topography to predict where water likely flowed.
The stream stretches are divided into one of four categories: shoreline, streams with fish or fish habitat, streams that don’t support fish but flow year-round, and seasonal streams that don’t support fish.
Beginning in 2005, the agency worked to improve the accuracy of its maps by entering more factors into a stream modeling computer program. Topography is still used to predict the location of streams, but field research, stream gradients, and watershed information is included to determine where fish habitat lies.
“There’s been a lot of effort lately to add more data and improve the maps,” Natural Resources spokesman Bryan Flint said.
Still, the computer model doesn’t always get it right, a fact readily acknowledged by Natural Resources. The agency’s website on water typing describes the model as a “best guess.”
“These maps are provided as a starting point to help landowners identify and type streams on their property. However, it is the landowner’s responsibility to correctly identify and type all waters,” the site reads.
Errors can go both ways, Flint said. Sometimes the maps show less fish habitat than they should, sometimes they show more. Field checking maps across the state would take a massive amount of staff time and resources, Flint said. Natural Resources does require landowners to field check water types on their property before applying for forestry permits.
Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies, most local governments, including Kitsap County and the City of Poulsbo, have adopted the state maps into their code to help identify critical areas, as required by state law. That wasn’t the intended purpose of the maps, Flint said.
“That’s a challenge,” he said. “Because we see the maps as a starting point.”
Kitsap County’s code protecting Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas sets its protective stream buffers based on the Natural Resources classification system (buildings are set back 200 feet from fish-bearing streams, for example, and 50 feet from non-fish bearing). County planners inspect sites whenever a critical area is involved, Peters said, but use water typing maps to decide when to make a visit. If a stream isn’t mapped, it may go unprotected.
Peters and Glasgow say Natural Resource’s maps work especially poorly in Kitsap. The state’s model relies heavily on topography — hills, ravines and other geographic features — to predict where streams will flow. The peninsula is relatively flat, especially at the North End, where few elevations rise above 400 feet.
“We think our maps are worse than most,” Peters said.
An animation above compares Natural Resource's water typing map for Cowling Creek with the field survey completed by the Wild Fish Conservancy. Teams mark a series of GPS points (shown in orange) to chart stream stretches. Fish-bearing streams are marked in red, non fish-bearing in orange, and unknown in black. (Graphics courtesy Wild Fish Conservancy; animation by Dan McDougall)
Back in Hansville, Jamie Glasgow and colleague Frank Staller have found an unmapped stream flowing beneath Twin Spits Road.
It runs in a straight line from from a wetland, through a culvert beneath the road and onto the beach. It’s almost certainly a man made drainage, but under state law it should be a classified stream. In fact, Glasgow and Staller believe it could receive a fish bearing designation, because of its gentle flow, proximity to the shoreline and other factors dictated by law. The pair measures the width of the stream, note GPS points, measure and photograph the culvert, then troop to the outflow on the beach to repeat the process.
Water typing is painstaking work. Crew members record the width of the stream, the consistency of its bottom, habitat types, surrounding brush and trees, barriers to fish passage and the amount of wood debris in the water. They catch fish if they can, netting samples, or use an electrical device to stun fish when netting isn’t possible.
Basic stream information and water type revisions are compiled and sent to Natural Resources to eventually be incorporated into the official water typing maps. Any group can submit water typing amendments if they follow Natural Resource’s protocol and gather supporting evidence. The amendment process is complex and can take months.
In the meantime, the Fish Conservancy makes all its gathered data and photos available in an interactive map on its website. Visitors can view data and photographs from streams in their area. Details on fish passage barriers and habitat can be used to support restoration projects and local governments can use the information to inform land use decisions.
Glasgow stresses the Fish Conservancy’s goal in water typing isn’t to push for more regulation, but to make sure existing regulations are applied.
“We can’t guarantee it, but getting it onto the map gives it a better chance of being protected,” Glasgow said.
Read part 2 of our series in the Aug. 12 edition.