monitoring a changing river

This is one in an ongoing series of posts by artist Elizabeth Conner, artist in residence on the Tolt River. Elizabeth is working with scientists who are monitoring the river in the aftermath of a recent restoration project near Carnation. She will be formulating ways to share that information with the public.


Perched on a molded plastic chair at SeaTac, surrounded by noisily enthusiastic teens on spring break, I check in with Josh Latterell, one of my primary contacts for understanding monitoring activities on the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers. As usual, Josh communicates compelling information at a rate that gives me writer’s cramp. Since I find the terminology vivid and fascinating, I struggle to record this new information before I lose the thread. I want to “get it right,” or at least come closer to understanding.

Following the removal of a levee at the confluence of the Tolt and Snoqualmie, this spring’s priorities for monitoring change include “edge mapping” and “fish counts.” Fish counts take place at night which, in my mind, lends them an aura of mystery. I hope to observe and/or participate in one of these counts within the next month.  In June, several surveys will be accomplished: a wood survey, several vegetation surveys, and a series of gravel surveys, or “pebble counts.” I am planning to “ride along” for many of these, and I am enthusiastically looking forward to the pebble count in particular. It sounds like a contemplative activity but, of course, I have no idea whether or not that will be the case.

“Edge mapping” records the boundaries of water flowing at low velocity, or approximately 0.45 meters per second. The goal of this spring’s edge mapping is to measure habitat benefits resulting from the river channel adjustments that have taken place over the past winter, following completion of site restoration at Tolt-MacDonald Park. For example, the river channel has widened, new gravel bars and pools have formed, and several cottonwood trees have fallen into the river. These adjustments should increase the amount of slow-water habitat that juvenile salmonids prefer. Higher flows are also being tracked by photographing and mapping the site with a helicopter when the water is too high to enter with hip waders.

The hypothesis being tested by the King County edge mapping effort is whether the restoration project will result in more, and more widely-distributed, “slow or quiet water” (low-velocity habitat area), thus providing additional places for salmon to live and seek refuge. It is anticipated that, with the levee removed, the river will inundate the floodplain at lower flows, in a more natural way than before the project was completed. This means that many acres of floodplain habitat will be accessible for more days of the year, providing better opportunities for growth and survival. Josh’s off-the-cuff metaphor: “more ‘motel vacancies’ during more seasons, for salmon to be nurtured and grow, as well as to seek safety from predators.”

According to Josh, this year’s edge-mapping will be timed to correspond with flow rates similar to last-year’s edge-mapping activity. Since I plan to accompany Josh on as many of these expeditions as possible, he gives me flow-rate numbers to monitor via the website, so I can set up a personal “early warning system” for what will be a two-day “go/no go” window in which to accomplish the work.  For the Tolt, these numbers are 156, 760, 1320, and 460 to 590. I repeat these numbers back to Josh, fantasizing that my fellow air travelers may think I am placing bets on my cell phone.


Why is all this effort important?  Monitoring associated with Tolt and neighboring Chinook Bend projects will provide important information related to the feasibility and design of future projects, as well as tell the project teams if adjustments or follow-up work are needed. If a potential new restoration project is logistically feasible, but biologically unfeasible, then should it be undertaken? Is there a common language scientists engaged in monitoring, and project designers (who might be the same individuals), can use to think about both feasibility and design? How do we mix process-based design with projects that provoke change?  How long do we wait to gauge ‘success’ in a restoration project? How can we make sense of something that is constantly moving and changing? I begin to think about the challenges of keeping more than one idea in play, in order to make creative decisions. Science often feels like art to me.

On the plane, my thoughts wander, with a sense of awe and sorrow, to the recent events in Japan that have caused such rapid and far-reaching change that it is almost impossible to comprehend. City of Carnation mayor Lee Grumman and I had a wonderful conversation the other day, about the river and the floodplain, among other things. We agreed that change is exciting and fascinating, but sometimes sad, because some of what is familiar and well-loved may be lost in the process. Is it possible that paying close attention to the process of change may help humans navigate the experience of loss?


Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Conner