In Washington state’s Skagit River Valley, a multi-million dollar stimulus fund project is nearing completion. The project’s focus is to restore habitat for endangered salmon, protect farmland from flooding and create jobs.
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Taking two years to complete and creating or helping to support 225 jobs, some seasonal and some for the duration, the project has restored 60 acres of freshwater tidal marsh at Fisher Slough, a wetland and farmland complex in the Skagit River delta. The slough is one of the last estuary habitats available to juvenile Chinook salmon before they head down the Skagit River and out to the ocean .“So when those tides come in each day twice a day, some of the lower level tides they’ll just fill some of these channels like this tidal channel right in front of us.” Kris Knight is a restoration project manager with The Nature Conservancy. He point to channels designed to restore what was here 100 years ago. “The water will move in here and they’ll reshape themselves the way they would naturally be existing.”
Old floodgates and dikes have been replaced, levees set back and irrigation ditches, once barriers to salmon, relocated. “There’ll be chum and silvers and pinks that come and spawn in this area," Knight says. "So when they come down the skagit river heading toward the salt water they’ll come to fisher slough. It’s a spot for them to rest and feed, to get larger, because we know a salmon that’s had time to rear in an estuary has a 10 percent greater chance of surviving to come back as an adult and spawn.”
Two years ago the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration received $167 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to restore coastal habitat and simultaneously help jumpstart the economy with jobs. The money was spread over 22 states. Washington state’s Nature Conservancy received a little over $5 million. About 2.5 million more from state agencies and private donors provided work for engineers, scientists, and construction workers. Andy Connor is with Interwest Construction. “It’s kept 50 jobs in our group for the last two seasons. These projects don’t happen without the stimulus money.” Connor says the project has been a success but it’s not been easy. “Mother Nature is challenging. We’re putting the wetlands where they belong and with that come challenges of building the project at these low elevations.”
The Fisher Slough restoration project was born out of conflict and longstanding tension between those committed to restoring estuary habitats for juvenile salmon and those committed to protecting farmland. Eight years ago, a farmer who owned the land challenged the restoration community to create a project that would benefit both. The farmer isn’t talking to the media these days but Allen Rozema with Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland is. “It was really, really tough because the old paradigm had been a zero sum game. Single species management or single resource issue type management and for a long time thou shalt never mix the projects together.” Rozema says urban sprawl, second homes, development, and water pollution have threatened productive farmland for decades. Farms in the Skagit Valley, known nationwide for tulips, ornamental bulbs, potatoes, and berries are uniquely interdependent because farmers share land in order to rotate crops. If floods or development takes land out of production, it disrupts the whole cycle. Again Allen Rozema: “Farmers are worried that they’re approaching this tipping point that one of these years that last one hundred acres is going to drop off.”
In nearby LaConner, Bob Hart runs a farm that grows nursery stock, small grain, cattle, and hay. His family has been farming here since the Civil War. "We’ve learned how to dike and drain and maintain the land. The bigger challenge is we’re seeing more development where the same amount of water comes in a shorter period of time.” Hart hopes the millions spent to restore Fisher Slough will keep land from being flooded but he isn’t convinced. “We’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the Puget Sound Basin in the last 25 years. What we should have after all that time is rock-solid results — this is what we did and this is how it worked.”
Some understand Hart's skepticism including Jacques White, reached by phone. White is a biologist with Long Live the Kings, a non-profit salmon recovery group. He’s a strong advocate of estuary restoration for both salmon as well as migratory corridors for birds. Although the water that comes into Fisher Slough will be freshwater, says White, other slough projects in the Skagit Valley have seen tide gates fail, resulting in saltwater intrusion into farmland. "If you can do a demonstration project that has a triple bottom line, economy, ecology and equity, in other words you don’t damage the surrounding farm activities. you manage water better so you address flooding and you provide effective habitats for fish, that’s a good thing.” But it’s a fine line. Farmland in the Skagit Valley is down 33 percent since 1950, according to American Farmland Trust, while land converted to farms and development has resulted in a 73 percent loss of historic tidal wetlands, according to The Nature Conservancy. The loss of estuary and freshwater tidal habitat is one of the biggest factors limiting Chinook recovery, one of the triple bottom lines the Fisher Slough restoration project hopes to address.