The Skagit basin is located in the northwest portion of Washington State, United States of America and extends into British Columbia Canada. Water from this basin drains into the Skagit River directly or via the river’s 3,000 tributaries. In the eastern portion of the basin, majestic evergreen forests rise up to two volcanoes and the Cascade Range. These mountains are covered in almost 400 glaciers that currently supply the Skagit River with cold water throughout the dry and warm summer. Ten billion gallons of water flow each day from Skagit River into Puget Sound from the two Forks that split to make Fir Island. The Skagit River contributes twenty percent of all the freshwater entering the Sound. Eleven reservoirs temporarily hold back some of the water, supplying energy to Bellingham, Skagit County cities and Seattle and providing drinking and irrigation water for people and agriculture.
The Sauk-Suiattle, Cascade and Baker rivers are all major tributaries to the Skagit river.
The western portion of the basin flows out of the foothills onto the largest delta in Puget Sound. This vast flat land was once a rich estuary, larger than the fifteen other major Puget Sound estuaries combined. The current delta is a tremendous economic and ecological asset providing the largest agricultural center in Western Washington and remaining a major contributor to maintaining salmon, waterfowl, and other wildlife populations.
The Skagit River is home to all five salmon species, including the most abundant run in Puget Sound of the iconic Chinook. The largest population of bull trout in Western Washington also resides in the Skagit, along with steelhead and 17 other fish species. The Skagit delta, with its mixed landscape of estuarine/intertidal and agricultural habitats, supports large wintering populations of snow geese, trumpeter and tundra swans, dabbling and diving ducks, shorebirds, and colonial waterbirds (such as great blue herons). Wintering bald eagles and other raptors are also abundant both on the delta and along the upper reaches of the river. The Skagit delta provides winter habitat for 80 percent of western Washington’s waterfowl, and foraging and staging areas for 70 percent of Puget Sound’s shorebird population.
The People and Economy
Cities and Towns: Anacortes, La Conner, Mt. Vernon, Sedro-Woolley, Burlington, Lyman, Concrete, Marblemount, Bow, Newhalem, Rockport, Darrington, and Hamilton.
Native American Tribes: Swinomish, Sauk-Suiattle, Upper Skagit, and Samish
Approximately 120,000 people live in the Skagit basin. Skagit cities line the Interstate 5 corridor that runs between San Diego, California and the Canadian border; and Skagit’s close proximity to major cities like Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle, Washington make it a popular destination and location for significant growth and development. Population predictions suggest that by 2050 the human population will almost double here.
Despite its location nestled between two major West Coast cities, the use and enjoyment of natural resources is a large part of human life in the Skagit. Commercial, subsistence and cultural fisheries exist; agricultural lands dominate the lower valley providing internationally renowned food products as well as a substantial tourism base; forestry is active in the middle watershed; hydroelectric dams provide power; and the North Cascades National Park is a hub of recreational activity in the upper watershed.
Skagit County is also the center of Washington state’s petroleum industry, with accessible ports and refineries just outside of Anacortes, Washington. According to Western Washington University’s College of Business and Economics, the largest in-county employers are Skagit County and the Skagit Valley Hospital, with most people leaving the county for outside employment in Seattle, Everett or Bellingham.
Beyond the Skagit Basin
Skagit Climate Science Consortium’s (SC2) climate research work extends beyond the surface water hydrologic distinction of the Skagit River basin to include the Samish River and Basin and Padilla Bay to the north and the eastern shore of Whidbey Island to the west. These areas are often included in SC2 studies due to their ecological or hydrologic connectivity to the Skagit River and their utilization by the salmonids coming out of the Skagit River. For ease of reference, the Skagit basin term is often used on this website and by SC2 members to encapsulate the larger area.