Photo by Vince Bertrand: Snohomish Conservation District volunteers have helped plant 10,000 trees within 12 acres of land owned by the City of Monroe.
Photo by Vince Bertrand: Snohomish Conservation District volunteers have helped plant 10,000 trees within 12 acres of land owned by the City of Monroe.

Thousands of willow saplings are thriving after being planted as a buffer for Cripple Creek.

They are expected to accomplish a number of conservation goals. Fast-forward a few years, and project organizers predict the creek’s water will be colder and cleaner, and the impact will be felt far beyond Monroe’s boundaries.

“Everything effects everything else,” said the Monroe Stormwater Compliance coordinator Vince Bertrand.

Right now drivers can see evidence of the efforts north of U.S. Highway 2. A mass of pink flags mark the young trees, which are spread out across about a dozen acres. The entire 47-acre Monroe Wetlands conservation easement is owned by the city. Seattle-based conservation organization Forterra manages the land.

The city and Snohomish Conservation District teamed up for the planting project, which was conceived in 2014. That’s when Bertrand and Alex Pittman got together, “when the emails started flying.”

Pittman was looking for a way to cool down water in the French Creek sub-basin. Warm temperatures affect the amount of dissolved oxygen in its tributaries. Low levels create a chronic barrier to fish passage, according to the conservation district. 

Cripple Creek enters the Monroe Wetlands to the north, and then exits via the southwest corner. The waterway connects with French Creek, which then flows into the Snohomish River.

The conservation district has been focused on French Creek for a while, according to Pittman. Salmon struggle to survive in its warm waters.

Bertand said for years the conservation property was anticipated to include interpretive trails in the city’s comprehensive plan. Then it dropped off. Bertrand and Monroe Parks director Mike Farrell brought it back.

Money has been the biggest barrier, Bertrand said, and the project likely won’t be completed until the city can cover costs with a grant.

Pittman was able to make that happen for the wetland’s restoration. He secured $109,000 from the  Department of Ecology for planting native trees and shrubs.

“Our original plan was 6,000 plants over eight acres, but we have expanded that to over 10,000 plants over 12 acres,” Pittman writes in an email. “This is predominately willows, but also includes red-osier dogwood, black twinberry, and pacific crabapple, and pacific ninebark.”

The site was degraded by past agricultural use, according to the grant. While describing the area, Bertrand noted a few other streams that also flow through it.

“If you call it Backhoe Creek, it was probably created by a backhoe, and they dug it out,” he said.

The development led to deforestation. Other species have prevailed since. The existing flora, such as reed canary grass and bittersweet nightshade, will be supplemented by a “diverse mix of native, woody vegetation.”

Reed canary grass changes the composition of the wetland, according to the city. The species is the “primary stewardship issue,” and will push out animals and plants alike.

“Once established, reed canary grass is difficult to control because of its thick root mat and because it diminishes the seed bank of native wetland plant species,” according to the city.

Bertrand said reed canary grass supposedly doesn’t like shade, so the trees can impact its prosperity. As they grow, the new plants are expected to also help reduce downstream floods, restore healthy movement of water in and out of the wetland, and groundwater drainage, according to the grant.

The wetland is technically functioning as it should right now, Bertand said. The ecosystem purifies water, which is fed in part by waterways coming from Snohomish County-owned property, largely farmland, and provides habitat for wildlife. In the past, people have fished trout from its streams.

Bertrand said it’s unclear whether salmon make it all the way to Cripple Creek. They would have to make it under U.S. Highway 2 somehow, which would be possible if culverts were installed. The city would have to conduct a feasibility study, he said.

The planting project is a healthy way to improve the city’s natural resources, Bertrand said, and he can’t control what surrounding property owners do.

“We have to do what we can to the waters while they are in the city,” he said.

The conservation district collaborates with landowners when they can, according to Pittman. Sometimes they get creative, such as using compost bins to reduce runoff in streams. He states the end goal is to change the behaviors of land users in the French Creek watershed.

“In a watershed with such diverse land uses, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving soil health and water quality, so we have worked to approach it from all angles, and to capitalize on opportunities as they arise,” according to Pittman.

He wrote in the grant application that the location of the restoration is a benefit. High-visibility is an advantage. He writes similar opportunities of this scale are limited in the sub-basin, especially in the lower watershed.

The conservation district touts the project as a learning opportunity. The organization encourages passersby to ask questions and dig into what grows along their commuter route.

Pittman expects the new trees will be large enough to make an impact on water temperatures within three years, which will only become more substantial as they flourish. The first vegetation that went in has had a very high survival rate, “which bodes well for the future of the project.”

The conservation district will continue the efforts this fall and winter.