Friday, April 20, 2018

Culvert Case Notes: a Few Highlights

Washington State appealed a 9th Circuit Court ruling on culverts to the US Supreme Court (Washington State v United States 17-269. Oral arguments were earlier this week. The short story is State roads stream crossings in many places have blocked salmon fish passage. This blockage led to a 9th District Court ruling that the State of Washington needed to accelerate culvert replacements on State Road stream crossings due to the violation of Indian treaties.

I can't say I understand the State's position other than it is keeping with a long time Washington State tradition of not being very supportive of "usual and customary" treaty fishing rights for treaty tribes.

The Supreme Court oral argument transcripts are HERE for those that try to decipher where the Supremes might be heading. 

I noted a few highlights:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR (to Noah Purcel arguing for Washington State): In the courts below during the argument in the Ninth Circuit, you said the Stevens Treaty would not prohibit Washington from blocking completely every salmon stream into Puget Sound.

MR. PURCELL: I remember that answer well, Your Honor, and that was a mistake at oral argument about how our theory....

JUSTICE GORSUCH: -- the treaty, which guarantees the right to all usual and customary fishing grounds, really means half of them?

  The point of a treaty I would have thought would have been to -- to freeze in time certain rights and -- and to ensure their existence in perpetuity, regardless of what other social benefits a later municipality might be able to claim.

I don't see anything in the treaty -- maybe you can point it to me, maybe I'm just missing it textually -- anything in the treaty that says: Ah, and your rights to those usual and customary grounds and stations is limited by, and may be completely eliminated, if necessary, to meet other domestic interests that a municipality might have, which is, I think, the position you're taking, I think, before this Court.

 MR. PURCELL: Not exactly, Your Honor.

JUSTICE KAGAN: And like Justice Gorsuch, I'm wondering where that is in the treaty? 

Much of the Washington State argument and back and forth with the Justices at oral revolved around vague standards about that applied prioritization of culverts. Given a recent opinion by Gorsuch on another case, being vague may not be a good idea. I did not fine the 9th Circuit ruling on prioritization vague:

"The court ordered correction of high-priority culverts — those blocking 200 linear meters or more of upstream habitat — within seventeen years. For low-priority culverts — those blocking less than 200 linear meters of upstream habitat — the court ordered correction only at the end of the useful life of the existing culvert, or when an independently undertaken highway project would require replacement of the culvert. Further, recognizing the likelihood that accelerated replacement of some high-priority culverts will not be costeffective, the court allowed the State to defer correction of high-priority culverts accounting for up to ten percent of the total blocked upstream habitat, and to correct those culverts on the more lenient schedule of the low-priority culverts."

Allon Keden arguing for the United States of America against the Washington State appeal had this quote: "The state takes about a half dozen quotations out of context from more than 1,000 pages of record and briefing."

Keden's quote matches how things went during the first appeal to the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The Court of Appeals panel stated "Washington misrepresents the evidence and mischaracterizes the district court’s order.

It should be noted that much of the 9th's ruling was based on Washington State's own studies:

"WDFW and WSDOT, stated, “Fish passage at human made barriers such as road culverts is one of the most recurrent and correctable obstacles to healthy salmonid stocks in Washington.” The report concluded: A total potential spawning and rearing area of 1,619,839 m 2 (249 linear miles) is currently blocked by WSDOT culverts on the 177 surveyed streams requiring barrier resolution; this is enough wetted stream area to produce 200,000 adult salmonid annually. These estimates would all increase when considering the additional 186 barriers that did not have full habitat assessments."

In sum, we disagree with Washington’s contention that the Tribes “presented no evidence,” and that there was a “complete failure of proof,” that state-owned barrier culverts have a substantial adverse effect on salmon. The record contains extensive evidence, much of it from the State itself, that the State’s barrier culverts have such an effect. We also disagree with Washington’s contention that the court ordered correction of “nearly every state-owned barrier culvert” without “any specific showing” that such correction will “meaningfully improve runs.” The State’s own evidence shows that hundreds of thousands of adult salmon will be produced by opening up the salmon habitat that is currently blocked by the State’s barrier culverts. Finally, we disagree with Washington’s contention that the court’s injunction indiscriminately orders correction of “nearly every state owned barrier culvert” in the Case Area. The court’s order carefully distinguishes between high- and low-priority culverts based on the amount of upstream habitat culvert correction will open up. The order then allows for a further distinction, to be drawn by WSDOT in consultation with the United States and the Tribes, between those high-priority culverts that must be corrected within seventeen years and those that may be corrected on the more lenient schedule applicable to the low-priority culverts."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Self Armored River Bluff

We recently traversed along the base of a late-Pleistocene terrace consisting of glacial till and ice proximal meltwater. The terrace formed by incision and erosion by the Nooksack River to create a river bank bluff. The bluff is about 25 feet high. There are numerous large cobbles and boulders at the base of the bluff along the river edge derived from cobbles and boulders that have fallen from the terrace slope forming a lag of very course sediment along the edge of the river. Many of the boulders are much larger that the cobble sediment within the gravel and cobble bars within the river area. 

Cobbles and boulders in the river bluff slope 

The large cobbles and boulders accumulated at the base of the slope along the river appeared to be limiting the erosion along the terrace. The bare slope above shows that some erosion has taken place, but the size of the rock large on the lower slopes was considerably larger than that within the river gravel and cobble bars.

Post our traverse, a review of aerial photographs dating back to the 1930s found no discernible change in the position of the terrace edge over a period of 80 plus years. The historic aerials also showed the river was frequently flowing right at the base of the terrace. Hence, the rocks armoring the lower terrace were effectively reducing erosion for most river flow events.     

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Dungeness Spit Notes

I had a brief venture to the Dungeness River delta. Standing on the saltwater mash flats of the delta I had a view across the marsh and the water of Dungeness Bay.

The Dungeness Lighthouse was a speck on the horizon and only a bit more visible with the telephoto view.

Dungeness Bay looking towards the tip of the spit

Lighthouse viewed via telephoto view

The Dungeness Spit is a remarkable thin stretch of sand and gravel beach extending out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca over 6 miles from the main coast.

A big chunk of sediment comes from the high eroding bluffs to the southwest of the spite. These bluffs are exposed to fairly large waves coming into the open water of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Ian Miller has put together a scheme for getting a better understanding of this remarkable spit (surveying-dungeness-spit). And it is remarkable - its the longest spit in the United States. Schwatz, Fabbri and Wallace (1987) provide a map of the sediment (drift) movement on this complex spit.

Drift map (Schwartz, Fabbri and Wallace, 1987)

The spit is complicated by the presence of another source of sediment from the southeast from sediment inputs from the Dungeness River as well as periodic waves generated by south winds blowing onto the backside of the spit.

Light House on distal lobe of the spit

Beyond the lighthouse, the spit is a no-entry wild life preserve as critical habitat for many bird species.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Cool Oblique Lidar Image of Racehorse Slide by Washington DNR

The Washington State Department of Natural Resources has a set of new images derived from utilizing lidar (new-lidar-screensavers-of-washington). One of the images is the Racehorse Slide in Whatcom County which I very recently coincidentally posted on recently (first-description-of-racehorse-slide).   

The steepness of the upper part of the slide appears a bit exaggerated, but the imagery overlain on the lidar and aerial oblique views does provides a compelling image.

Within the news post associated with some other great images, there is a series of changing images of the Racehorse slide. I screen saved on that has labels added.

The slide is a complex slide associated with large scale dip slope failures and appears to consist of multiple failures. There are a number of these large scale dip slope failures in the Chuckanut Formation in Whatcom County and the scale and potential consequence is a bit disconcerting. The marked up image shows the Racehorse Creek landslide of 2009 that appears to have failed on the same bedding plain.

Images like this are a good wake up call to the potential hazards in our mountain valleys. This slide could use a bit more study and understanding.     

Thursday, April 5, 2018

First Description of Racehorse Slide

I visited the Racehorse Slide in Whhatcom County this week. The Racehorse Slide is a big slide that extended across the valley floor of the Nooksack River.

Lidar of racehorse slide

The first description of the slide may be attributed to the government land survey crews. I took a look through the field notes from the original government land survey that traversed this slide. Galbraith noted the piles of rocks and none of his survey witness tress were large. 


Pringle, Schuster, and Logan (1998) took a crack at dating the slide via a log exposed in the Nooksack River bank below the slide. They got a date of 3,780 radiocarbon years ago. Given the location of the log this date can be viewed as a maximum date; the slide may be younger, and based on the appearance of the boulder field I suspect it is substantially younger.

Note lack of weathering rind on this coarse sandstone

Besides the rather unweathered appearance of the sandstone boulders, there are no large old stumps within the boulder field. Perhaps there are some elsewhere on the the slide. The lack of large stumps is by no means definitive regarding the slide age - it may simply mean that fire recurrence may have been frequent enough to prevent large tress from growing in this area. Early accounts of the area summarized by Cashman and Brunengo (2006) suggest that the area had been burned over in the late 1800s.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Whatcom-Labounty Wild Land Northwest of Bellingham

Just to the northwest of the Bellingham city limits is a swath of land between Interstate 5 and Northwest Road. From a map perspective, I have long been familiar with this area. The city designated it as an urban growth area back in the early days of the Growth Management Act in the mid 1990s. The land is underlain by Bellingham Glacial Marine Drift consisting mostly of silt and clay. Glaciomarine drift consists of silty clay soils that were deposited by melting glacial ice floating on the sea at a time near the end of the last glacial period when the local relative sea level was higher than the present (the mass of thick glacial ice that had covered the area had depressed the land surface hundreds of feet in the region).

Northwest of Bellingham, the glacial marine drift topography is a relatively hummocky landscape. I suspect the hummocky landscape was the result of underwater currents during the late stages of glacial marine deposition. Soils maps indicate the soils are Whatcom-Labounty soils. The Whatcom soils are well drained at shallow levels and wet at depth and the Labounty soils are poorly drained and tend to be wet. The poor drainage and hummocky nature of the area is such that it was poor farm land and poor forest land. The wetlands as well as very soft soils also have made it rather poor land for urban development; I estimate the area is on the order of 60 percent or more wetlands. 

The result is a swath of land at the city's edge that is wild land. While other wild lands at the city edge attract recreation, the brush, wet ground and lack of trails means a venture into this area is a brief wilderness experience even if one can hear the freeway and air planes at the nearby airport.

Start of my venture was a classic bush wack only on level ground.  

The wetlands rewarded me with an early bloomer - Lysichiton americanus (skunk cabbage).

The biggest challenging was navigating across or in some cases through areas of standing water.

Water coverage of this landscape has been increasing. Beavers in this area can go about their works relatively free of disruption. They do not bother with permits to cut trees down in forested wetlands or get hydraulic permits or dam permits.

A forested hummock raising above the wetlands as an island provided a brief spell of easy walking.

A partially blown over Douglas fir redirected the lead to a limb.

Sometime in the past fire had visited this island in the wetlands.

I did manage to get to my sample site along a particular branch of wetland drainage. Under the black organic layer the soil is stained by iron precipitate.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Daffodils on the Skagit Delta

The tulips are not quite in bloom yet on the Skagit Flats, but the daffodils are in full display. 

I got a glimpse of the workers - these flower fields are a business and not simply a display for tourists.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Comparing Lidar of Different Years at Dynamic Landscapes

The Washington State DNR has recently uploaded more lidar coverage ( Some of the recent uploads are of lidar that was flown in the early 2000s such as Jefferson County, but there is also some 2017 high resolution lidar that has been a bit of distraction to geomorphologist.

With multiple year available on the portal, there is also the opportunity to do comparisons at sites that have undergone change. Alluvial fans can be a good place to see significant changes.

Canyon Lakes Creek alluvial fan has been going through significant recent changes. The fan is in part controlled by the meanders of the Middle Fork Nooksack River as well as human infrastructure.       

2006 lidar

The change in flow on the fan has eroded into an old elevated terrace.

2013 lidar

The results have been significant property damage as the creek erodes new channels and flows and floods into areas not previously near the creek.    

Racehorse Creek is another creek that has been going through some big changes. A large landslide in the watershed in 2009 has greatly increased the sediment inputs to the stream. On the creeks lower reaches that has lead to the channel being filled and flooding and new overflow channels forming.

2006 lidar

2013 lidar, note the channel has been entirely filled 

The slide in Racehorse Creek has had some consequences to the few folks on the lower reaches of Racehorse Creek. One home has been abandoned due to the nearly winter long constant flooding.

The lumpy ground west of the lower reach of Racehorse Creek is a very large landslide deposit that dwarfs the event that took place in Racehorse Creek. The slide extended across the Nooksack River Valley. The age of this slide is not currently known.
Racehorse Slide

A comparison between 2006 and 2017 lidar shows the 2009 slide before and after. 

2006 lidar

2017 lidar
The slides are on dip slope of a sandstone unit within the Chuckanut Formation.

The 2009 slide is readily visible from the Nooksack Valley south of Kendal and appears as a sharp edged block missing from the the slope. The lidar suggests that the slip was off the same bed of the formation.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Old Shipwreck in Drayton Harbor

Doing a bit of pre field excursion research I noted a shipwreck along the shore of Drayton Harbor in northwest Washington.   

The map was from 1972. An earlier 1950s map did not show the wreck. The wreck was not part of my purpose and I forgot about until we came across its remains.

It was remarkable sunny clear late winter day. Frost in the morning then sun warming things to about 50. Drayton Harbor is a shallow bay abutting the City of Blaine near the Canadian border. Cleanup efforts that have been really slow and challenging have slowly returned the bay to healthy enough conditions for growing oysters.

The BC Coast Range is the predominant Mountain view.

But the view of Mount Baker is equally nice on a clear day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Haematopus bachmani, Black Oystercatcher

Black Oystercatchers fall into the category of really easy to remember shore birds. There are so many others that are harder to distinguish for beginners or once distinguished their names get lost to memory. It takes work and review to stay up with shorebirds. But oystercatchers are easy.

I spotted this pair sunning themselves on the rocky spit south of Kala Point south of Port Townsend. I felt a bit bad disrupting their rest. So I headed up onto the upper spit and hid behind the large driftwood logs to get a around them. By the time I got even with them they were back at work seeking mussels.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Northwest Washington Iconic Mountain View

I have been fortunate to live in areas where mountains of some sort are always on the horizon. The iconic mountain of northwest Washington is Mount Baker. 

After days of clouds and rain (and some snow) we had a brief clear spell and Mount Baker welcomed me home when I headed onto the Samish Flats. After a month of heavy snow the 10,000 foot volcano mountain along with its earlier predecessor Black Buttes, an earlier eruptive center, and the sharp peaks of the Twin Sisters were heavily plastered in white. The high peaks were aglow in the last sunset rays of the day above the lower Northwest Cascade and Chuckanut ridges.   

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Foulweather Bluff Adams Apple and Track of Tornado

Foulweather Bluff is at the north end of Kitsap County. To the west of the bluff is the entrance to Hood Canal, a long inlet that extends far to the south. To the east is the continuation of Admiralty Inlet and Puget Sound. 

The peninsula has an outline that suggests a head with an open mouth. I was looking into the geology of the estuary on the neck of Foulweather via the T Sheet (one of the earliest surveys) map of the area. A small hand written note next to the estuary indicates that either the mapper or someone using the map afterwards saw the peninsula as a head as well.

Click to blow up image to read the hand written notes

In addition to the "Adams Apple" note, there is a note north of the estuary stating "Track of Tornado". Some of the early T-Sheet maps emphasized a survey of the timber stands. I am skeptical that a tornado passed across the peninsula as tornadoes are very rare in western Washington; however, concentrated intense wind events do happen and it appears that a large timber blow down had taken place prior to the survey.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

George Bush: At Least Part of the Reason Washington State Is Not Part of Canada

A case can be made (and has been made by some historians) that what is now Washington State would have ended up part of Canada if not for George Bush (

George Washington Bush (Samuel Patrick drawing)

The specifics of his early life, including the year he was born are a bit unclear ( Based on what is known, Bush had seen some success prior to traveling to what is now Washington State from Missouri in 1844. I like the unconfirmed oral history that he worked for a time as a fur trapper including a stint with the Hudson Bay Company.

What can be ascertained is that he likely faced discrimination in Missouri and saw opportunity and more freedom traveling to what was then the disputed Oregon Country. He and his party were heading for the Willamette Valley. The American settlement in the Willamette Valley had grown enough that the Americans living there set up a provisional government within this otherwise disputed Oregon County. One of the earliest laws passed was an exclusion law against blacks.

Bush and his fellow pioneers/settlers headed north of the Columbia settling in what later became Tumwater. They were the first settlers north of the Columbia. Others followed. These early north of the Columbia settlers partially bolstered the United States claims to include the land that would become Washington State when the border through the disputed Oregon County was finally settled. By all accounts, Bush was a very generous and gracious early settler who greatly aided those that followed and he was beloved by those in his community.

Bush's legacy appears on maps of the area and a school is named after him.

This short talk on the Cowlitz Trail that Bush helped blaze is part of the local South Puget Sound and Tumwater pride and remembrance of his life and legacy.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Amtrak Bellingham to Vancouver BC

A favored way of taking the 55 mile trip from Bellingham to the big city of Vancouver is via the Amtrak rail. The train terminates very near downtown Vancouver. A modest walk or a short sky train ride takes one into the center of the city. Taking the train avoids high parking charges, sometimes very long border waits, slow traffic, and the stress of driving congested and unfamiliar city streets. 

There is also the percs. Open beer or wine, reading, or taking in scenery that is otherwise missed via driving. 

The main limitation is timing of the trains. But if the timing works, a far better way than driving. 

A few notes and images from the ride up and back  

Good views of the Cornwall Avenue Landfill in Bellingham

The end of Cornwall Avenue was used as a municipal garbage dump into the early 1970s. The garbage added to fill on the tidelands at this location from past saw mill and warehouse use that was on piers and fill. Most recently dredged sediments from a port waterway were added to the landfill and covered with a white plastic liner. Eventually this tract of landfill will be converted into a park.

Former GP paper mill site 

The former paper mill is mostly gone. Ongoing construction prep and cleanup work has been taking place. And recently mush of the mill site and port yard area has been covered with piles of logs for shipping.

Former paper mill site
Some of the old tanks from the facility are to be left as historic/legacy features

Past the transitioning blight waterfront the views do become scenic.

Old cement pier and Bellingham Bay 
Lummi Island is the main feature across the bay

Tenant Lake southeast of Ferndale
The view from the rail line is the best view of this swampy lake 

Blaine Harbor just south of the border

A favorite part of the train ride is passing through White Rock, BC. People are almost always out on the beach and always seem happy to see the passenger train. 

White Rock itself was a bit camouflaged in the snow.
The rock is painted white and is a large glacial erratic on the shoreline

White Rock pier

Another nice stretch is the estuary on the shores of Semiahmoo Bay. Lots of ducks, eagles and hawks

The rail line parallels the main highway (99) for a stretch. Felt smug seeing the cars backed up behind the snow plows while we relaxed in the observation car.

Fraser River at New Westminster

The return trip is a sunset trip depending on the time of year.