View of the Tolt River

New Federal Stream Buffer Requirements

Buffers of healthy trees and plants along rivers and streams are critical to salmon recovery. Plants near a stream help keep water cool and clean. Trees along the water provide food for wildlife, help to stabilize the banks, and the trees that eventually fall into the water provide a place for fish to hide and avoid predation. A stream buffer with large trees and an understory of diverse plants is essential for the health of salmon as well as other fish and wildlife.

In early 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries provided guidance to the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Environmental Protection Agency regarding appropriate vegetated buffer sizes along Puget Sound rivers and streams to support salmon recovery. This guidance is in response to an initiative produced by the Treaty Indians Tribes in Western Washington in which Tribal leaders asked the federal government to align its agencies’ programs to lead a more coordinated salmon recovery effort.

The new guidance generally sets a minimum buffer size of 100 feet on salmon-bearing streams for federally funded grant programs that are used to fund habitat enhancement and salmon recovery.  Currently, a mix of federal, state and local funding is used by agencies, non-profits and landowners to plant trees and shrubs along the rivers and streams in the Snoqualmie Valley. Prior to this guidance all grant agencies allowed smaller buffers and provided more flexibility to accommodate landowner needs and land use on each site.

Rasmussen Creek at Cherry Valley Dairy
Rasmussen Creek at Cherry Valley Dairy

Although wide buffers are preferred for fish habitat, they can be very burdensome in areas such as the lower Snoqualmie Valley where the majority of salmon habitat is also in farmland. About 80 percent of the Lower Snoqualmie River shoreline is in private ownership. Many of the farms in the Valley have multiple streams running through them. According to an analysis prepared for the Snoqualmie Fish, Farm, Flood Advisory Committee, nearly 20 percent of the currently farmed land in the Snoqualmie Agricultural Production District would be lost if all streams and rivers followed these new buffers width.

Much of the public land in the lower Snoqualmie Valley is currently planned for ecological restoration to improve habitat for salmon and enhance water quality. Most of the area that remains is privately owned and the next phase of buffer plantings will require coordination with landowners. Frequently, landowners start by planting smaller more manageable buffers and later expand to complete other important conservation actions.  If landowners cannot implement larger buffers there will be more landowners and non-profits relying on limited local funding sources.

The Snoqualmie Watershed Forum (Forum), a partnership between King County, the Snoqualmie Tribe, and the cities of Duvall, Carnation, North Bend, and Snoqualmie, works on watershed issues and is concerned about the new buffer requirements. The Forum sent a letter to the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) in December 2013 to express concern for the new buffer widths. The Forum argued that the “minimum buffer size will limit the number of landowners able to undertake voluntary riparian planting projects.”  The Forum asked that the decision be delayed and that more flexibility be allowed for landowners.

Sarah Cassidy discusses stream restoration work at Oxbow Farm
Sarah Cassidy discusses stream restoration work at Oxbow Farm

Washington State’s Department of Ecology is a state agency whose mission it is to protect, preserve, and enhance Washington’s environment, and to promote the wise management of air, land, and water. Ecology recently responded to the Forum’s letter expressing their concern for the water quality problems in the Snoqualmie River and reinforced that “robust riparian buffers address nonpoint pollution, improve water quality, and increase salmon recovery” and that they intend to move forward with the new buffer width requirements for federally funded projects. Ecology also indicated that they will take the suggestions outlined by the Forum into consideration when updating the funding guidelines.

Lastly, they emphasized their desire to more about “King County’s Agricultural Production Districts, and Farmland Preservation” and are interested in understanding more about this “potential conflict between riparian protections, water quality standards, and Farmland Preservation easements.”

New buffer width requirements have already been adopted by some Washington State funding sources and may soon be stipulated by others. Ecology has already adopted this requirement for most of its grant programs. The Salmon Recovery Funding Board (SRFB), a group created in 1999 by the Washington State Legislature to protect or restore salmon habitat, is considering whether to implement guidelines for minimum buffer widths as well. SRFB provides about 18 million dollars of funding each year for salmon recovery. Larger buffer width requirements could put constraints on landowners and limit the number of projects seeking funding.

As the Forum mentioned in their letter to Ecology, “Flexibility is a key attribute of any successful grant program that provides funding to projects that take place on privately owned land.” Many different interest groups are working together to figure out the best path forward to this complex and nuanced issue.