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Streambed scour of salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) redds in the Sauk River, Northwestern Washington

December 1, 2021

The autumn and winter flood season of western Washington coincides with the incubation period of many Pacific salmon (Onchorhynchus spp.) populations. During this period, salmon embryos incubating within gravel nests called “redds” are vulnerable to mobilization of surrounding sediment during floods. As overlying sediment is transported downstream, the vertical position of the streambed can be lowered, a process termed streambed scour; thus developing salmon embryos may be destroyed resulting in decreasing egg-to-fry survival rates. The Sauk River, which drains a 1,900 km2 (733.5 mi2) area of the central Cascade Range of Washington State, provides spawning and rearing habitat for several species of Pacific salmon including Chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha), which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1999. In order to assess the hydrologic conditions when streambed scour and concomitant geomorphic changes occur, accelerometer scour monitors (ASMs), which record the time when streambed scour lowers the streambed to the level of salmon egg pockets, were deployed in two geomorphically different reaches of the Sauk River to monitor scour during water year 2018. Nineteen ASMs were deployed in an upstream reach, which was largely confined by valley walls with vegetated, stable banks and low channel-migration rates near the confluence of the Sauk and White Chuck Rivers. Twelve additional ASMs were deployed in a downstream reach within an unconfined valley with unvegetated, unstable banks and high channel-migration rates between the town of Darrington and the confluence of the Sauk and Suiattle Rivers. During the ASM deployment, discharge measured at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) streamgage Sauk River above White Chuck River, near Darrington, Washington (12186000), peaked at 479 m3/s (16,900 ft3/s) with an estimated 0.18 probability of annual exceedance (5.7-year recurrence interval). During the flood season, large-scale geomorphic changes, including channel migration and bar deposition, were measured at the downstream reach, but only minimal geomorphic changes were measured at the upstream reach. ASMs deployed at the downstream reach were not recovered after the flood season and total scour depth was presumed to have exceeded ASM anchor depth. At the upstream reach, 7 of the 19 deployed ASMs were recovered after the flood season and all recovered ASMs recorded scour at discharges that equaled or exceeded 204 m3/s (7,210 ft3/s). The remaining 12 ASMs deployed at the upstream reach were not recovered and total scour depth was presumed to have exceeded ASM anchor depth. Collectively, this analysis enhances the ability of fisheries managers to forecast egg-to-fry survival rates of salmonids by determining the hydrologic conditions at which scour at the level of salmon redds initiates.