The Nooksack River: Nature of Change

by Carol Macilroy, Floodplains by Design

The long history and more recent series of events that brought us to this point are complicated. Heart-breaking and heart-warming, the history of the Nooksack River and its people shows up today in words said and unsaid, biases known and unknown, relationships formed and unformed, and possibilities for a different future tantalizingly close, but seemingly unattainable.

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In the midst of a pandemic and at the start of a potentially divisive water adjudication that was stalling our collaborative work to develop a plan that supported salmon recovery, maintained farm viability and reduced flood risk, a cheery call from Courtney at The Nature Conservancy came. “Do you want to create an animated video to tell the story of the Nooksack floodplain and the effort to bridge across salmon, farms and flood management to shape a better future?” No one was in the mood. No one thought it would be useful.

But it was.

People skipped out of meetings to instead review storyboards. They turned around comments on a dime, and smiled enthusiastically about the video as it began to take shape. Our little collaborative planning team, now fighting for survival but on opposite sides in a water adjudication battle, hung together to create something beautiful, something inspiring. Our team did it together.


“Farmers are not caricatures. No Whatcom County farmer dresses like that. The farm buildings don’t look like that. We have cows, not sheep,” said the farm representative. “There need to be trees. Before they were cut, the landscape had trees. Bigger trees, please.

And, by the way, no salmon has striped adipose fins,” said the tribal staff person.

“Rocks that we drop for armoring are angular, you have put river rock in places that should be angular armoring rock. There is no armoring on the inside of a river bend. Our machines no longer dig in the water like that,” said the flood engineer.

With every detail heard and listened to and then redrawn, the actual people and what they care deeply about began to take shape. The history and issues came forward in drawings with beautiful colors of greens, blues, reds and yellows. We all learned things. We all saw new things.

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“This is not all the farmers’ fault,” said a tribal staff person and the farm representative on separate calls in the same week.

“We have no fish. We barely have any fishermen left,” said the tribal staff person.

“We are afraid we will lose everything,” said the farm representative.

“We have already lost everything,” said the tribal staff person.

And through working and reworking, drawing and redrawing, a common story of the Nooksack began to take shape. It was told by the river, because in and through the river, our team began to be seen by themselves and each other. And what came forth was resilient and hopeful. Again.

Watch “The Nooksack River: Nature of Change” below!

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