Restoring saltwater, and nature, to the Nisqually River estuary

While multiple agencies argue over the Columbia River system, changes are afoot in the Nisqually Delta north of Olympia. Already you can see a difference.
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Puget Sound water is returning to the Nisqually estuary as part of a 12-year restoration effort.

While multiple agencies argue over the Columbia River system, changes are afoot in the Nisqually Delta north of Olympia. Already you can see a difference.

Earlier this month, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge celebrated the restoration of the Nisqually River estuary. The cold salt water of Puget Sound poured onto the old diked pasture of the refuge at the beginning of October, undoing the late-19th-century 'ꀜimprovement'ꀝ of the land, and beginning what refuge manager Jean Takekawa calls the largest estuary restoration in the Northwest.

It was a rare piece of substantive good news about the restoration of Puget Sound. It capped a planning process that began in 1996 and a deconstruction process that took more than a year. It has started a natural succession that will end who knows when.

The old status quo of diked fields, long since abandoned as a dairy farm but tended faithfully as a refuge since 1974 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wasn't exactly the estuary as nature intended — and besides, it couldn't last. Takekawa explains that especially after the Nisqually earthquake weakened the old dikes, saltwater was intruding more and more. And so was canary grass. By the time the dikes were breached, the invasive plant covered some 40 percent of the refuge.

Now, with assistance from the Nisqually Indian Tribe — which liberated some diked land of its own years ago — and Ducks Unlimited, plus salmon restoration money channeled through the state, the Fish and Wildlife Service has given some 762 acres back to the tides. This should provide habitat for any number of critters, including listed chinook salmon. Takekawa says that the restoration may double the Nisqually River population of chinook.

While there's nothing speculative about the estuaries' importance to salmon — young chinook may spend up to half a year there — some people argue that a lot of speculation lies behind Gov. Chris Gregoire's September announcement that the state and three federal agencies had signed a memorandum of understanding to spend $40.5 million restoring habitat in the Columbia River estuary. The money will be provided over nine years by the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The figure is more than a little malleable, because the Corps' funding (more than half of the total) will depend on year-to-year appropriations.

The Columbia River has two sides. While the federal agencies committed themselves to spending an additional $40.5 million on one side, they didn't commit to any additional effort on the other. Nearly everyone recognizes that this reflects the two states' very different positions in the endless litigation over NOAA Fisheries' latest embattled Columbia River dam system biological opinion (BiOp), and on the hot-button BiOp issue of breaching the lower Snake River dams. The state government on the south side of the river — that would be Oregon — favors breaching the lower Snake River dams and is challenging the federal BiOp in court. The state government on the north side — that would be ours — opposes breaching and says the BiOp is just fine. The only question is whether the feds are rewarding their friends, dangling a bribe in front of their opponents, or both.

Either way, the Obama administration has clung not only to its predecessor's last biological opinion, but also to the Bush administration's tactic of buying off opponents and rewarding allies. 'ꀜThe agreement with Washington follows a series of accords reached last year [just as the BiOp came out] among federal agencies, five Columbia River tribes and the states of Idaho and Montana,'ꀝ Erik Robinson reported in the Vancouver Columbian. 'ꀜThe parties agreed not to challenge the current biological opinion in court. In return, the government agreed to provide $900 million over 10 years in hatchery improvements, stream restoration work, screens to protect fish, and additional spillway weirs on some of the dams. 'It'ꀙs a bribe, but I don'ꀙt think it'ꀙs an illegal bribe,' said Michael Blumm, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.'ꀝ

Clearly, the feds signed the MOA — or at least timed the announcement of the MOA — in an attempt to influence U.S. District Judge James Redden. Redden threw out the government's 2000 BiOp because its salmon recovery plan was based on actions that were not 'ꀜreasonably likely to occur.'ꀝ In a March letter to the parties, he worried that this document too relied on actions that weren't reasonably certain to occur.

The MOA may have just been signed in September, but it was unveiled in Redden's courtroom back in April. Reasonably certain? Hey, it's happening. No problem. Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda says this is not simply an inference; it was 'ꀜexplicitly their point back in April.'ꀝ

Will it work? Mashuda says there's really nothing in the MOA that answers the questions Redden has raised. The BiOp still has 'ꀜall the problems that the judge identified,'ꀝ Mashuda says. 'ꀜNothing about the Washington MOA ... changes all that.'ꀝ He says there are really two levels of concern. First, are these things really going to happen? Second, even if they do, will they produce the results that the feds claim for them? Mashuda argues there's no evidence that habitat restoration, even if it occurs, would produce the kind of benefits the feds claim. 'ꀜI just don't think it's going to do what they're touting,'ꀝ Mashuda says.

At best, success is uncertain. Therefore, someone better have Plan B ready to go. In this context, Plan B means breaching the Snake River dams. That is conspicuously included in the Obama administration's tweaking of the BiOp, but not as a ready-to-go emergency response. The critics are right: If things go badly, the administration plans to make a plan. When anything would actually happen — or indeed, what would happen — is anyone's guess. 'ꀜWithout a margin for error,'ꀝ University of Washington geomorphologist David Montgomery writes in King of Fish, 'ꀜextinction is not only a possibility — it becomes the backup plan.'ꀝ

Whatever happens in the Columbia River estuary, the salmon that reach it have had to run the gauntlet of dams, and in many cases to survive the degraded streams of the Columbia Basin. Upstream, salmon in the much smaller and shorter Nisqually River face far fewer problems. (Salmon from other south Puget Sound rivers that will use the restored estuary have varying experiences.) Montgomery writes that a 'ꀜcanoe trip on the lower Nisqually River ... is as close to a trip down the rivers of Lewis and Clark's day as can be found around Puget Sound.'ꀝ

In a way, the diked estuary represented the missing piece. Now that the dikes have been breached, 'ꀜit's really exciting to see the response by wildlife,'ꀝ Takekawa says. 'ꀜIt's encouraging to see how quickly nature is taking over.'ꀝ Immersed in the salty tides, many of the refuge's upland plants started to die back within weeks. Sloughs and channels have opened up. And sediment has started accumulating along the newly liberated shore. In time, soil will build up on the sediment, and marsh vegetation will grow there, providing food for the wigeons and other shorebirds that already use the refuge as a stop on the Pacific Flyway. Already, Takekawa says, flocks of shorebirds appear when the tide is out.

The Nisqually had remained less developed than other major estuaries on the Sound, which has lost an estimated 80 percent of its estuarine habitat. It was all under federal ownership, which made both the politics and economics of the project simpler.

It also has benefitted from historical occurrences and accidents. The DuPont company had manufactured and shipped dynamite just up the shore for 70 years, no doubt inhibiting other people's private development schemes. When the Port of Tacoma eyed the estuary for a deepwater port in the mid-1960s, citizen activists eventually chased it off. The old state Game Department bought a crucial chunk of the land in the '60s, and then the feds established the refuge in 1974.

John Lombard, author of Saving Puget Sound, suggests that the Nisqually restoration is not only important in its own right; it also reflects an attitude that's all too rare. The restoration wouldn't have happened without money from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, Lombard says, and the state wouldn't have channeled enough of those funds to the Nisqually if all the south Puget Sound watershed restoration councils hadn't agreed to let that estuary get money that would otherwise have flowed to their own local projects. 'ꀜYou don't often see that kind of self-sacrifice,'ꀝ Lombard says. The other groups' decision reflects 'ꀜa recognition that, A, some places are more important than others; and, B, places that aren't part of their watersheds are part of their ecosystem.'ꀝ


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.