Swing by the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery boat launch on a July Saturday and you can easily count over a hundred vehicles in the parking lot. Large groups launch tubes, paddleboards and inflatable kayaks, finding relief from summer heat in the cool, snowmelt water of Icicle Creek. But does all this activity do harm to the residents of the river: the fish?
On Sept. 13, 2018, the Icicle Chapter of Trout Unlimited held a public meeting in Leavenworth. One of the hot topics was whether recreation on Icicle Creek and parts of the Wenatchee River were having a negative impact on fish.
The answer? Probably.
But we don’t have enough data about how fish used the river in the past to compare with what’s going on today.
The data we do have shows a dramatic increase in river use by humans in recent years. And there’s plenty of witnesses who can talk about changes.
Landowners along the banks of Icicle Creek complain of drunken, noisy crowds trespassing, urinating (and worse) in their back yards.
Trout Unlimited member Bob Stroup laughs when he recounts the deterrent effect he achieved by planting hundreds of trees, bushes, and thorny plants along the riverbank in front of his own home. “And it protects my house from floods, too,” he notes, pointing out other benefits of having a healthy natural buffer between lawn and river.
To get a handle on what impacts are happening on the river and what can be done about problems, Chelan County Commissioner Bob Bugert directed Mike Kaputa, director of Chelan County Natural Resources, to invite people to the table in early 2020 to talk over river use.
The group included hatchery, city, and county managers, neighbors and business operators. He hired Jennifer Hadersberger of Leavenworth to conduct the meetings and a survey to see what issues were identified. She then did a survey of observed river use and reported back.
The findings pointed to a need for improvements to infrastructure, from better parking options to more public toilets.
Enforcement of existing laws about public alcohol use and other issues was lacking. And, of course, a way to pay for these things was also needed. One source of funding is lodging taxes.
Based on data compiled by AirBnB, short-term rentals in the Leavenworth zip code increased by 50% from 2015 to 2019. Lodging taxes have pulled in significant funds, increasing along with the rise in short-term rentals and the overall increase in visitation to the Leavenworth area.
In 2021, $500,000 for capital projects and $250,000 for tourism promotion, events and visitor services is available through the Chelan County Lodging Tax Fund. Lodging tax funds seemed like the right fit to pay for impacts to the river.
Troy Campbell, executive director of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce, used lodging tax funds to start up a Recreation Ambassador program in 2021. Through this program, local nonprofits could apply to staff key locations along the rivers to talk to visitors, using education as a tool for change.
“We no longer need to sell our destination,” Troy said. “Now, we need to educate incoming visitors to be respectful and make them better river users.”
Seven nonprofit groups joined in this pilot program, earning up to $2,500 for their organizations.
Over the course of 18 weekend dates, the ambassadors interacted with 3,600 visitors at four sites. They advised visitors of river conditions, solved problems, picked up trash, reported issues, rescued struggling swimmers and encouraged better behavior.
“We got a lot of new fans for the program,” Troy enthused.
He plans to expand next year, recruiting more nonprofits and increasing the number of ambassadors, as well as hiring a six-month seasonal, fulltime coordinator to manage the new but growing program.
Mike is equally pleased with the results. The Recreation Ambassador program, he said, “puts a human face on the river and the community.” For the future, “there are no cookie-cutter solutions.” The sheer volume of visitation will have to be addressed at some point. But for now, there are other experiments to try, like shuttles to reduce parking and road safety impacts.
And what about the fish? Human use isn’t going to go back to the lower numbers of past decades. The stretch of Icicle Creek from the boat launch downstream to the confluence with the Wenatchee River is thoroughly churned up by walkers dragging tubes during summer low water periods.
The good news is that the spring Chinook and coho salmon that return upriver to the hatchery and beyond to spawn arrive at times when people are present in much smaller numbers. This autumn’s excellent run of coho is drawing lots of anglers. Finding the balance that allows for healthy river habitat and opportunities for both natural and human users is challenging. But this community is working on it together.
Julia Pinnix is visitor services manager for Leavenworth Fisheries Complex. The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. For information, visit fws.gov.