For decades, old-style floodgates have kept floodwaters back from thousands of acres of land along the Nooksack by only allowing water from streams to drain into the river, and not back up onto fields when the river runs high, said Frank Corey, Whatcom Conservation District Resource Coordinator. But while those old floodgates helped with high water, the rest of the time they blocked fish from moving upstream into those small tributaries, essentially cutting off important habitat area that the fish need to grow and spawn, Corey explained.
New-style “self-regulating” floodgates, including the one installed at Appel Family Dairy, allow fish through, giving them new access to miles of streams where young salmon and other species can thrive and grow large before continuing their journey. They also do a better job of protecting nearby farmland from flooding, creating a win-win for fish and farming, said Corey.
He said another benefit of the new floodgates is that it protects small, young fish during floods. When the Nooksack River runs high, the fast water is dangerous for juvenile salmon, and if the river begins to rise, they move to side streams to wait out a possible flood. According to Corey, the self-regulating floodgates allow them to escape the main river before a flood happens, protecting countless smolts from being killed or prematurely swept out to sea.
These improvements to habitat do come with a cost. Grants from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), as well as funding from Whatcom County and other agencies and groups helped pay for the new fish-friendly floodgate at Appel Family Dairy. The Appels also allowed access to the area, and contributed a few acres of farmland that the project managers needed to use when the heavy equipment used to build the new floodgate was brought in.
But to farmers, the costs and the disruption to their normal operation is worth it. Appel Family Dairy co-owner Rich Appel said it’s incredibly important to them to protect the environment around their farm and in the larger Whatcom County community. “We have been farming here on the banks of the Nooksack River for three generations, and hope to continue for many more,” said Appel. “Taking care of the land, the streams, and the life that lives in them is crucial to our family’s future.”
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