Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

Saving the last estuaries

When rivers spill into Puget Sound, they provide some of the most productive habitat in the ecosystem. The ebb and flow of the tides creates a perfect mix of fresh and salt water critical for young salmon. But over the past 100 years, the region’s tidal wetlands have declined by more than 75%. Now a coalition of state and federal agencies has a plan to bring them back.

The Qwuloolt estuary hydrology restored by breaching a century old levee. WRP easement land in the foreground. Photo: USDA
The Qwuloolt estuary hydrology restored by breaching a century old levee. WRP easement land in the foreground. Photo: USDA

Mike Rustay pulls off the road a few miles outside of Everett, jounces down a ramp to a gravel lot, and parks his pickup next to a mobile office trailer. A couple of other pickups are here, along with a golf cart, but there isn’t much of the hustle and bustle one would expect from an active construction site. “It’s quiet because the project’s in the winter break,” Rustay says. “Everyone’ll be up and running again soon, when the weather clears up.” He hands me an orange safety vest nonetheless.

We are at Smith Island, a patch of land in the Snohomish River delta close to where it meets Puget Sound. Rustay is a habitat specialist with the Snohomish County Surface Water Management Division. While the restoration of Smith Island is kind of his baby these days, he wants to calibrate expectations all the same. “It’s not much to look at right now,” he says, “but it will be.” And when it is, the site will add a little more land to the growing amount of restored estuary habitat in Washington.

Estuaries once covered tens of thousands of acres in the Puget Sound region. Much of that area has since been lost, whether drained or filled for urban development, or cut off from their rivers with dikes and tidegates and converted to farmland. Some rivers, like the heavily industrialized Duwamish and the Puyallup, have almost no intact estuary habitat left. Others, such as the Skagit and the Snohomish, have a bit more to work with, even if their acreage has been substantially reduced.

That estuaries provide a vast array of ecosystem services—especially for Puget Sound’s beleaguered salmon runs—is well known, and it is the scarcity of intact tidal estuary that several local, state, tribal, and federal agencies are now trying to remedy. A new EPA-funded effort is being led by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the state’s Department of Natural Resources. It focuses on the sixteen largest rivers that empty into Puget Sound: nine from the Cascades, and seven from the Olympics. The strategy is aspirational more than item-by-item. “It’s a regional framework to hang local priorities on,” says Jennifer Griffiths, an environmental planner with the agency. “It points to long-term recovery pathways, and projects will ideally have multi-benefit linkages and outcomes.” The state’s goal is to have, by 2020, 7,380 acres of estuarine habitat restored basin-wide. This is about 20% of what biologists estimate to be the region’s total need.

 Smith Island Restoration Project location map. Image courtesy: Snohomish County
 Smith Island Restoration Project location map. Image courtesy: Snohomish County
 Smith Island Restoration Project area map. Image courtesy: Snohomish County
 Smith Island Restoration Project area map. Image courtesy: Snohomish County

Spaces of transition

As a piece of real estate, the Smith Island restoration project site is tightly bounded. Interstate 5 runs along its western edge, with Union Slough to its north and east. To the south is Everett’s wastewater treatment plant, and a bevy of sewage ponds. Within the edges of that frame are more than three hundred acres of what was for a long-time farmland, but now is mostly grass and trees. Shielding all of this from Union Slough is a century-old dike, effectively turning the slough into what Rustay likens to a gutter. “The water runs in, the water runs out,” he says. “We want it to stay a while.”

But if intact estuaries are spaces of transition, then Smith Island is in the midst of its own, as becomes clear when Rustay and Joe Rooney, the project’s construction manager, drive me around in the golf cart to tour the site. We bounce over a muddy track past a network of ponds and pipes, towards a pack of machines that are piling up big rocks to make the new setback dike. This is the first of what will be two phases. As the new dike is finished, workers will dig more than a mile of interior channels through the land. Then they will breach the old dike, and water will fill the fields. The aim is to bring tidal flow back to 330 acres of the Snohomish River delta by the end of 2018.

Rooney talks me through the state-of-the-artness of the dike: how they’re using 300,000 tons of specialized ‘aquitardant’ material to construct the mile-long barrier, how the fill is a clay-like mix with a higher plasticity index than Smith Island’s native soils. “This is going to be a really nice dike after it’s all done,” he says.

Later, standing on the old dike, Rustay outlines some of the project’s biological benefits. The restored estuary will improve flood control, it will provide habitat for young endangered Puget Sound Chinook, among other runs, as they make their way to the Pacific. On top of that, Smith Island will not only help the state meet its estuarine recovery goals, but, more locally, Snohomish County, as part of its Sustainable Lands Strategy. Earlier, Rustay had showed me a map of Snohomish River estuary and nearshore restoration project sites. Per the color codes, blue sites were complete, green were fully designed or in process, orange were in in the design stage, and yellow were in a more conceptual phase. Smith Island was green; very little of the map was blue; the biggest chunks seemed to be yellow. “At the rate we’re going,” Rustay said, “we aren’t going to meet our targets on time. But we never really were.” Rustay may be more optimistic over the long term. The projects remain critical for salmon recovery, he says, and he feels good that the county is nearing its targets. 

Slow and steady

As of 2015, there were ninety-nine estuary recovery projects on Puget Sound under the auspices of what the state and EPA are terming an “Implementation Strategy,” an effort to help prioritize and accelerate the overall recovery efforts.  Of those, fifty-three are done, thirteen, like Smith Island, are active, and the remaining thirty-one are prospective. But while the Implementation Strategy that serves as their umbrella may be new, it serves to highlight how estuary restoration tends to be a slow, steady process by nature. Individual projects might take years to be conceived, to get funded; and obtaining the relevant lands is no small thing. It took Snohomish County, for example, more than twenty years to secure all the land on the Smith Island site; and the project will cost more than $20 million, the funding cobbled together from a range of sources.

 Smith Island Restoration Project funders. Image courtesy: Snohomish County
 Smith Island Restoration Project funders. Image courtesy: Snohomish County

“All of our projects can’t take twenty years to do,” says Jay Kreinitz, the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program Manager for WDFW. “But they do take time — you need to have community buy-in.” This is especially true when land is being converted. “We have to show people who have come to value lands in particular ways how they will benefit from these new processes,” Kreinitz says.

Like other projects, whether in the Snohomish or the Skagit or elsewhere, the Smith Island restoration hasn’t been without its share of controversy. “Fish guys like me just want to say, Oh boy, fish habitat!” Rustay says. But behind the new dike sits $80 million worth of infrastructure: a marina next to the slough, a commercial nursery, what appears to be a small sheep farm, a timber mill, and, of course, the interstate. “All these folks were really interested in making sure we do this right,” Rustay says.  

Still, for Rustay, the inspiration for Smith Island sits across the slough, on the site’s southeastern corner. It is Otter Island: scrubby, green, overgrown, undeveloped, integrated into the slough’s ecology. “That’s the gem of the estuary,” he says. “It’s the goal, the condition we’re shooting for.” He smiles. “I just won’t see it happen in my lifetime.”

In the meantime, he looks to other projects in the Snohomish delta. “They’re already seeing fish in the Qwuloolt,” he says on the drive back to Everett. The Qwuloolt estuary, site of its own project, is a mile or so to the north of Smith Island, on the other side of Steamboat Slough. Rustay ticks off the fish already detected there: sculpin and starry flounder showed up almost immediately after the dike was breached, and now the Tulalip Tribes are seeing heavy use by juvenile salmon. “It’s great to see how these projects end up functioning in the real world,” he says. In fact, there’s a ceremony of a sort for a new waterfront trail along the Qwuloolt and Ebey Slough. “It’s opening this weekend,” he says. “You should go check it out.” So, I do.

Map of Qwuloolt Restoration site and vicinity. Courtesy: Tulalip Tribes
Map of Qwuloolt Restoration site and vicinity. Courtesy: Tulalip Tribes

Not just for salmon

It is a gray, blustery Saturday, and Marie Zackuse, the Chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, stands in front of a good-sized crowd in downtown Marysville. Behind her, four kayakers float in the Ebey Slough.

Ebey Waterfront trail opens along Qwuloolt Estuary. Photo: Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News
Ebey Waterfront trail opens along Qwuloolt Estuary. Photo courtesy: Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

Zackuse gestures to the slough and its surrounding marshes. “Our people used these estuary lands for fishing, hunting and harvesting, especially duck hunting,” she tells the assembled. “Our wild fish runs were healthy and productive until recent times, and with the Qwuloolt restoration, our salmon have been given the opportunity to survive.” And it’s true, or will hopefully be true before too long. The Qwuloolt project, which the Tulalip Tribes completed in 2015, reintroduced close to four hundred acres of former tidal marsh to the Snohomish River, about three miles from its outlet into Puget Sound. It is the second-largest such project completed in Washington to date, after the Nisqually river delta near Olympia. (On Rustay’s map, it was the largest blue chunk.)

But while the project’s main goal was to make the delta more habitable for young salmon, that wasn’t its only goal, and Zackuse hasn’t come out to talk just about the salmon. To her right, strands of green and blue ribbon are merrily strung across a newly paved 1.3-mile footpath that follows the slough’s curves. “The Tribes are restoring and renewing sites in the estuary and in the Snohomish River that provide benefits to not only to the tribe but the public as well,” she says.

Zackuse speaks a little longer, and a couple of other dignitaries speak after her, and then she gathers behind the ribbon with Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring and Mike Deller from the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board. The three hold a comically oversized pair of scissors. With a hearty snip the ribbon falls, the Ebey Waterfront Trail officially opens, and the cheerful crowd streams onto the trail. But I think back to something Rustay told me as a kind of humorous aside: this official opening, while nice, is a bit superfluous. People have been using the trail for a while already, walking their dogs on it long before it was formally open to them. It is the same with the estuary they are now walking next to, and estuaries all around Puget Sound: always desired, always in use, one way or another.


About the Author: 
Eric Wagner writes about science and the environment from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and High Country News, among other places, and he is the co-author, with photographer Tom Reese, of the recently published book Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish. He is currently at work on a book about penguins.