Thursday, August 10, 2023

Gone fishin' at Hylebos Creek

By Kris Olsen

Has your 'out of office' message ever read, "Gone fishin'"? Last month, some of our crew members were lucky enough to leave the office to do just that.

Although people may think that we mostly build and maintain roads, a large portion of our work involves streams and wetlands, especially in the lush Pacific Northwest. Often, those roads, streams and wetlands intersect.

Hylebos Creek crossing under I-5 in Fife

The SR 167 Completion Project in Pierce County is located in an area where roads, streams and wetlands collide. Interstate 5 crosses over Hylebos Creek at the Fife curve, with tributaries and wetlands on either side of the freeway. But we're making changes so the freeway, creek and wetlands can co-exist in harmony. The completion project extends State Route 167 from Puyallup west to SR 509 near the Port of Tacoma. But a huge portion of our work includes a unique and ambitious wetland and stream restoration project, revitalizing almost 150 acres of land on either side of I-5 near the Fife curve.

In mid-July, we marked a major milestone in this restoration effort when we removed fish from Hylebos Creek so that we can rebuild and realign a 2,200-foot section of it by mid-September. That's why some of our crews have literally "gone fishin'" recently.

Big changes are coming to Hylebos Creek in Fife

Before we can work in a stream, we need to make sure that all the fish in it are carefully removed from the stream's work zone and located to another area of the creek where they won't be affected. This is known as "de-fishing."

Because fish and their survival are so important to the ecosystem (including our orcas!), we're only allowed to step foot or put equipment into a stream during a designated "fish window." That fish window is often mid-summer to early fall, depending on the stream, when the fewest number of fish are generally present.

To catch a fish

No fishing rods, hooks or bait here, but the crews get wet! They set up and secure fine-meshed netting where they intend to start fishing. Then they'll walk down stream with another net, dragging it in the water. The idea is not to catch fish but encourage them to naturally swim downstream. Basically, we're "shooing" them out of the area. It's less stressful for the fish if they can swim away on their own. The crews will then secure another fine-meshed net in the stream to block off the area they just waded through.

Crews install fine mesh nets to help exclude or capture fish in Hylebos Creek

Now any fish stragglers are trapped between the two secured nets. Next, the team can take a third net and walk up and downstream, scooping the water to catch the fish. These are called "seining passes." These passes are then followed by "electro-fishing."

Electro-fishing simply generates a very small electrical charge in the water, temporarily stunning the fish so they can be gently scooped up in nets by trained fish handlers. We use the lowest voltage possible to ensure the effect is just brief enough to flush fish out, although the netters still need quick reflexes. They'll keep moving downstream, repeating this entire process until all the fish are caught and relocated.

In this section of Hylebos Creek, removing the fish came with extra challenges for the team because the creek bed was full of big rocks that were easy to trip over and muck which made it hard to stay upright when one step could result in sinking to their waists.

Crews de-fish Hylebos Creek using electro-fishing

While fishing, our crews are especially watching for high-value fish, such as Chinook salmon, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and coho. Those fish are put in a water-filled bucket equipped with a bubbler to aerate the water. Others, such as sculpin and lamprey eels, are placed in a separate bucket. All fish caught are counted, documented and then quickly taken up or downstream, based on their age, and released.

A juvenile Chinook salmon caught and relocated during de-fishing

After several days of removing fish from Hylebos Creek between SR 99 and 8th Street East, the creek was diverted into a temporary channel, the remaining water in the creek drawn down, and then the big equipment moved into place.

Restoring Hylebos Creek

Our restoration program for Hylebos Creek involves excavating, realigning and rebuilding the stream so that it meanders like natural streams should. We'll place logs to slow the creek in areas and create small pools of calm water where fish can hang out, grow, and gather strength. We'll also remove invasive shrubs and trees and replace them with native bushes and trees. These will provide shade to help keep the stream cool, which is better for fish. Although we're only restoring the section between I-5 and 8th Street East this year, future work includes realigning the stream northwest of I-5 and north toward Porter Way.

Why it's necessary

The SR 167 Completion project builds a new connection between Puyallup and I-5 and then from I-5 to SR 509. Decades ago, much of the land on the east and west sides of I-5 was converted from wetlands to industrial and agricultural use. Hylebos Creek and its tributaries were diverted into what is essentially an irrigation ditch that crosses under I-5. As it flowed toward Commencement Bay, it was directed into culverts under surface streets. But over the years, the drawbacks of these changes became more apparent.

Hylebos Creek in an irrigation ditch

Flooding, fewer fish, more pollution

During heavy rains, there was flooding on I-5 because the wetlands that once served as a big storage basin for extra water no longer existed. The culverts weren't big enough to handle all the extra water, either. Unfortunately, straightening out Hylebos Creek into irrigation ditches with no shade didn't create a healthy habitat where fish could flourish. In addition, portions of Hylebos Creek are so close to I-5 that it receives some of the highway runoff.

A wetland and stream rebirth

Hylebos Creek is perhaps the centerpiece of our wetland and stream restoration program, but there will be significant other changes that will restore the 150 acres on either side of I-5 to its former glory.

The rebirth of this area includes getting rid of the invasive reed canary grass, which makes up a lot of what you see on the east side of I-5. The straight-line irrigation ditches will disappear, and new more natural channels will be created for Hylebos Creek as it flows downstream from the north and northeast. It'll be located farther away from the freeway until it crosses under two new bridges. We'll add new channels south of the Interurban Trail (which stays where it is) for the Surprise Lake Tributary. We're going to plant 400,000 native shrubs and trees, add logs and native marsh grasses to create nurseries for juvenile fish and other aquatic species. There will be tree snags serving as perches for birds and berms where turtles can bask in the summer sun. And we'll create natural barriers to keep the wildlife away from I-5.

The areas in green show the wetlands and streams near I-5 and SR 167 that will be restored. For context, the area is larger than 110 football fields.

It's not just animals that will benefit. On the west side, near the reinvigorated Hylebos Creek, there will be a shared-use path that will connect with the Interurban Trail to the east, completing the Tacoma to Puyallup Trail connection.

In the end, the entire area will look and feel very different providing new opportunities for everyone, animals and people alike, to thrive.

Puget Sound Gateway Program

The SR 167 Completion project and this wetland and stream restoration work is part of the Puget Sound Gateway Program, which completes critical missing links in the state's highway and freight network.