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Nooksack Stewardship (WA)

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The Nooksack has its origins on the slopes of Mt. Baker traveling down to Puget Sound at Bellingham Bay. It flows through the traditional homelands of the Nooksack Indian Tribe and Lummi Nation. Over its short distance, the North Fork, Middle Fork, and South Fork all provide a diversity of paddling opportunities that can be enjoyed all year. Several hydropower projects have been proposed in the drainage over the years and one project is in operation on the North Fork Nooksack. Access issues continue to be a challenge along some sections of rivers in this drainage.

Wild and Scenic Designation

American Whitewater supports protection of rivers in the Nooksack drainage through Wild and Scenic designation. In their 1990 evaluation, the Forest Service determined that all three forks of the Nooksack, plus Wells Creek on the North Fork and Bell Creek on the South Fork were eligible for Wild and Scenic designation for their outstanding fisheries, wildlife, recreation, scenic and historical/cultural values. Although key tributaries that include Glacier Creek, Clearwater Creek, Warm Creek, and Wanlick Creek were not studied, we believe they are suitable candidates for Wild and Scenic designation. American Whitewater is a founding member of the Nooksack Wild and Scenic Rivers Campaign.

Hydropower Development

The early 1990s saw the subsiding wake of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 that fueled a veritable gold rush for independent power producers trying to stake a claim on sites for hydropower development. Dozens of sites were considered in the Nooksack River basin and dreams of putting this river and its major tributaries in pipes were hatched by those looking to profit from the new developer-friendly provisions that had been enacted into law. These efforts continued through the early 2000's. The following projects have all been explored or considered in the Nooksack basin. Those for which a formal application was filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are indicated by project number below:

  • Smith Creek
  • Sygitowicz Creek
  • Mirror Lake
  • Diamond Creek
  • Warm Creek, P-10865, Dismissed March 7, 2003
  • Clearwater Creek, P-11495, Dismissed February 12, 2003
  • Skookum Creek, P-11850, Surrender of Preliminary Permit November 19, 2003
  • Nooksack Falls (on the NF Nooksack), P-11857, Project Determined to be Non-Jurisdictional March 25, 2004
  • Boulder Creek, P-4270, Dismissed November 10, 1999
  • Deadhorse Creek, P-4282, Dismissed February 10, 2000
  • Canyon Creek, P-4312, Dismissed February 10, 2000
  • Wells Creek, P-4628, Dismissed February 10, 2000
  • Heislers Creek (on the MF Nooksack), P-11389
  • Glacier Creek, P-4738, Dismissed February 10, 2000
  • Swamp Creek, P-13867
  • Ruth Creek, P-13866

American Whitewater has been a formal stakeholder on several of these projects dating back to 1992 given the potential direct impacts to whitewater boating opportunities. As one of the most undeveloped and intact river systems in Puget Sound, our goal is to keep the river and its major tributaries in their wild and free flowing condition. Of these projects, Nooksack Falls is operational.

City of Bellingham Diversion on Middle Fork Nooksack

Until 2020, the Middle Fork Diversion Dam on the Nooksack River in Washington was a 25‐foot high, 125‐foot long concrete dam built in 1961 to divert water to Lake Whatcom, the City of Bellingham’s primary water supply. The original dam construction did not include fish passage facilities. Since 2002, the City of Bellingham, WA and fishery co-managers had been seeking a solution to the dilemma of how to restore fish passage at the Middle Fork Nooksack Diversion Dam as a result of an agreement between the City, Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. American Whitewater joined the conversation with a letter to the City that same year. While we saw a conservation opportunity, the Tribes saw the river itself as a bridge to their ancestors. The Middle Fork Nooksack (Nuxwt’iqw’em) and its salmon relatives are a significant part of their cultural identity, and the river is recognized as a Traditional Cultural Property. Removing the dam would open more than 26 miles of habitat for threatened salmon, steelhead, and bull trout but would also be a healing act for the river itself.

Various solutions for fish passage were considered from 2002 - 2016, including fish ladder variations and building hardened infrastructure in the river channel at the dam site so that water would flow into the existing diversion tunnel by gravity. Around this time Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen became personally interested in dam removal and in late 2016, American Rivers received a grant to hire a Project Manager and seed funding for technical planning work to begin on the Middle Fork Nooksack Dam removal project. The seed funding of $2.9 million from the Paul Allen Family Foundation was leveraged to secure salmon recovery dollars from state and federal sources, investment from the City of Bellingham, and to secure the $23 million in funding required for the project to be completed. The dam was removed and the river restored by August 2020. Read the full history of this project that was published in the Mar/Apr 2020 issue of the American Whitewater Journal.

Public Access

American Whitewater has worked to improve public access to the North Fork Nooksack River and served in a leadership capacity to publish The Upper Nooksack River Recreation Plan that will help guide the management of recreation and natural resources along the upper Nooksack River system in Washington state. The plan recognizes and supports the economic and health benefits of recreation, along with protection and restoration of the natural and cultural values of the upper river basin. The recreation plan was developed through a collaborative planning process led by an advisory committee comprised of representatives from American Rivers, American Whitewater, Hydropower Reform Coalition, Mount Baker Club, National Park Service, Nooksack Tribe, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Pacific Northwest Trail Association, the United States Forest Service – Mt. Baker Ranger District, Whatcom Chapter of Back Country Horseman of Washington, Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department, Whatcom Events (Ski to Sea Race), the Whatcom Land Trust, and Wild and Scenic River Tours. Planning assistance was provided by the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program. Access to the North Fork Nooksack has presented challenges because the take-out for the run is downstream of the Forest Service boundary. We have identified a take-out on state lands managed by Washington Department of Natural Resources and have developed a concept plan for river access at this site in partnership with Washington Department of Natural Resources, Nooksack Tribe, American Rivers, Whatcom County, and the National Park Service. Access to the South Fork has also been a challenge.

American Whitewater has focused on the following specific projects:

1) Improved access for the Horseshoe Bend run: For many years paddlers accessed the river in a number of different locations for this run. American Whitewater worked with the Forest Service to locate a suitable location for a designated access point and the Forest Service completed a trail to provide access in 2014 at the Highway 542 pullout located at mile 37.3.

2) American Whitewater supported efforts by the Forest Service to invest in upgrades to the Horseshoe Bend Trailhead at the bridge across the river at Highway 542 mile 35.4. The wide steps down to the river at this location are designed to accommodate rafts.

3) Access at the Warnick Bridge at Highway 542 mile 30.7 was improved when the site was used for habitat restoration projects. Boaters can now access the river more easily at the downstream right right side of the bridge. The access could likely be further improved during a future bridge replacement in a manner consistent with the requirements of state law to consider access to waterways (RCW 47.01.500).

4) For many years American Whitewater has advocated for improved access at Highway 542 milepost 27. We have located a parcel of state land near this location that is managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources and have developed a concept plan for river access and restoration of this site.

Salmon Restoration and Protection

American Whitewater has worked with the Forest Service to develop guidelines that protect salmon while providing opportunities for paddlers to enjoy the North Fork Nooksack River.

The Nooksack River is an important river for Chinook salmon which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. These fish are particularly vulnerable when spawning (August thru September). American Whitewater has developed the following guidelines with the US Forest Service for recreational activities on the North Fork Nooksack for the protection of these fish:

  • Avoid recreational activities that include contact access on the water (e.g. paddling, fishing, wading) from August 15th to October 15th. During this period of low water, which occurs during the Chinook spawning period, fish are particularly vulnerable to disturbance from boats that pass overhead or individuals wading in the river. An exception is allowed at higher flows above 1000 cfs (as measured by the USGS gauge).
  • An exception to the above guidelines is made for the short high gradient Horsehoe Bend section. Because this reach is of higher gradient than that typically used by spawning salmon it may be used by paddlers during the period August 15th to October 15th (paddlers are asked to carefully review the information on access points in the run description).
  • Following the completion of spawning in mid October, eggs in gravel are vulnerable through the end of March. Do not get out of your boat or wade in the river in areas where the substrate is smaller than the size of a grapefruit as you could crush eggs by walking in areas with gravel.

By following these voluntary guidelines we can protect fish and provide recreational opportunities. By demonstrating cooperation with these guidelines we can avoid mandatory river closures and retain this more flexible alternative.

The contacts below include staff and volunteers working on this project. Make sure you are logged in if you wish to join the group.

Title Name City
Thomas O'Keefe Seattle WA Details...
Hale Hanaway Bellingham WA Details...
Dirk Fabian Bellingham WA Details...
Devin Smith Bellingham WA Details...
Chris Tretwold bellingham wa Details...
Amy Brown Bellingham WA Details...
David Wilson Details...


Whitewater Paddling in the North Cascades [web version] (12/6/2008)

American Whitewater's survey of 165 whitewater enthusiasts on whitewater rivers of the North Cascades.

Whitewater Paddling in the North Cascades [print version] (12/6/2008)

American Whitewater's survey of 165 whitewater enthusiasts on whitewater rivers of the North Cascades.

Clearwater Creek Motion for Dismissal (1/15/2003)

AW's motion for dismissal of the hydroelectric project proposed for the Clearwater in the Nooksack River drainage.

Mount Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest Wild and Scenic River Review (4/23/2024)

Complete Appendix E of the Forest Plan that includes the Wild and Scenic River review.

The Upper Nooksack River Recreation Plan (4/10/2015)

Complete Recreation Plan Document with Appendices.

Concept of River Wilderness (4/23/2024)

Essay by AW founder Wolf Bauer on the importance of conserving wild rivers.

Middle Fork Diversion Dam Letter 20JUN2018 (6/20/2018)

Letter of support for the Middle Fork Nooksack Fish Passage Project that would remove the dam on the river.

Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force letter (8/19/2018)

Overview of opportunities to address impacts of dams that impact salmon and navigation.

Maple Creek Site Plan: Public River Access and Restoration (1/7/2021)

Planning process and design recommendations for a new public access site along State Highway 542 of the North Fork Nooksack River

Related Groups

Sign up to join the Sultan River (WA) working group and stay informed on issues related to improving flows through hydropower relicensing.

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Associated Rivers

Canyon Creek (NF Nooksack) WA
Clearwater (MF Nooksack trib.) WA
Glacier Creek WA
Nooksack, Middle Fork WA
Nooksack, S. Fork WA
Racehorse Creek WA
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