Qwuloolt Estuary Project’s goal: Return of the wild salmon

MARYSVILLE — A small inflatable boat slipped into Allen Creek near where it empties into Ebey Slough.

The water was warm, brown with mud. The four researchers dropped a beach seine into the channel, dragged it ashore, drained out the water and then began sorting through the morass of weeds and dirt to find every squirming fish. They counted, measured and recorded each one before tossing it back into the water.

What they found wasn’t surprising. About 90 percent of the fish they pulled out were various types of sunfish, considered an invasive freshwater species. There were a few native catfish, stickleback, but no salmon were found that day, and none were expected.

The team, employees of the Tulalip Tribes, was led by Casey Rice, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. They were doing one of the final counts before the ecosystem of this 400-acre lowland is changed forever.

At low tide on Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intends to breach a levee separating Ebey Slough from former farmland. When the high tide returns, salt water flowing upstream from Possession Sound will flood the area, returning the land to the salt marsh it had been before the levees were built more than a century ago.

“What we expect, and what we hope, is that the current state becomes less and less prominent at that place, and it transitions to a more native salty diverse ecosystem,” Rice said.

The current state of this fallow lowland on the southern edge of Marysville is one of sunfish, warm water, fields of canary reed grass and blackberries. The occasional coho salmon determined enough may make it past the tide gates to spawn in Allen or Jones creeks. The future: tidal mud flats, naturally flowing and meandering streams, and a natural reintroduction of vibrant wild salmon populations, including chinook.

The project has been 20 years in the making, and it takes its name from the Lushootseed word for marsh: Qwuloolt.

The Tulalip Tribes are the lead agency on the Qwuloolt Estuary project, but getting it done has involved participation and support from a dozen agencies and groups, including Marysville, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA and others.

The project represents a $20 million investment by those entities over the past two decades, with significant amounts of federal money coming from the Army Corps and NOAA, and the Tribes contributing more than $1 million, in addition to numerous matching grants received over the years.

Originally the Tulalips and their partner agencies conceived of the plan as a way to repair some of the damage caused by their former landfill site on Ebey Island’s northwest edge.

That 145-acre landfill run on reservation land by Seattle Disposal Co. from 1964 to 1979 took in an estimated 4 million cubic yards of municipal, commercial and medical waste. It became a Superfund site in 1995 and was cleaned up and capped in 2000.

The next step was to try to repair damage done to the watershed, which was potentially prime habitat for threatened Puget Sound chinook salmon. The opportunity lay in the fallow land that used to house a dairy farm at the southern edge of Marysville.

“This is sort of the low-hanging fruit for restoration in the Snohomish River delta,” said Josh Meidav, an ecologist for the Tulalip Tribes and one of the project managers.

The primary goal is to restore habitat for wild-run chinook salmon, but other native fish, such as coho and bull trout, also will benefit.

Juvenile salmon fill a critical ecological niche, feeding on plankton and insects, and provide a food source for other animals. Restoring their habitat is an attempt to undo damage caused by years of diking, drainage, ditching and development.

“The ‘four Ds’ have affected tidal wetlands, not just in the Puget Sound but all over the industrialized world,” Meidav said.

Building levees removed the ability of seawater and migratory fish to replenish the nutrients in the estuary, allowing invasive plants like reed canary grass to proliferate. Draining the area and putting in ditches for agriculture continued the process of exposing the carbon in the diminished soil and “volatilizing” it, causing it to bond with the atmosphere to make greenhouse gases including methane and carbon dioxide, he said.

“This is part of a positive feedback loop that is never-ending with global climate change,” Meidav said.

The tribes’ work has concentrated on the interior of the Qwuloolt site: filling the old agricultural drainage ditches, building berms so that the tides won’t erode the new banks abutting the Sunnyside neighborhood and other adjacenet properties, and cutting down and removing some of the reed canary grass so it all won’t decompose at once when the area floods, which would stink up the neighborhood.

Tribal contractors also have planted native species such as salmonberry, willows, nootka rose and Sitka spruce around the estuary perimeter.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps has been building a 4,000-foot-long setback levee to protect a nearby industrial park and Marysville’s wastewater treatment plant. The setback levee by far has accounted for the largest proportion of capital: $6.1 million for construction and $3.5 million for the fill material.

“A lot of the city’s most expensive infrastructure is nearby,” said Marysville chief administrative officer Gloria Hirashima. That includes the wastewater treatment plant, the sewer lift station and other public utilities.

The Corps has also rerouted Allen Creek from its artificial channel west of the new levee to make it merge into Jones Creek.

The final step comes at the end of this week, when the Corps will wait for low tide, shave down 1,600 linear feet of the levee, then breach a 200 foot-wide section, said Jessie Winkler, the chief of civil works for the Army Corps’ Seattle District.

When high tide returns, Qwuloolt will flood for the first time in more than a century with a much more dynamic mix of fresh water and seawater.

“With the first high tide we’ll start to see effects,” Meidav said.

The final step will be to fill in the old tidal gates.

Slowly, a new landscape will emerge: The sunfish and canary grass, unable to survive in the colder saline environment, will disappear.

In their place will be rich habitat where juvenile salmon can hide, rest, feed and grow, becoming accustomed to salty water before they head out to sea. New native plants eventually will return to the enriched wetland.

NOAA and the tribes will continue to monitor the area with remote cameras installed around the edge of the new flood plain, but there is already an advance view of what Qwuloolt will become right next door.

The city of Marysville about 20 years ago restored a 10-acre piece of property along the slough just outside the tide gates.

Compared with the stagnant Qwuloolt site, the Marysville parcel is a viable wetland with a free interchange of water with the slough. Salmon migrate through, and on one August day while Meidav walked the site he was buzzed by a great blue heron coming in for landing near the tide gates.

Across the slough on Ebey Island there is “passive breach,” a levee that failed 50 years ago that was never repaired because the land was of marginal use. The island is now crisscrossed by tidal channels and some native plants including marsh sedge and cattails have returned.

To the southeast is Heron Point, a 300-year view of what a restored estuary can look like: an undisturbed 20-acre stand of Sitka spruce forest growing in the marshland along the river. The property is owned by Kimberly-Clark Co. and most of it has never been logged.

It’s these reference points that make Qwuloolt a near-perfect laboratory to study wild salmon runs and ecological restoration, Meidav said.

The Qwuloolt Estuary is just one of the first stages of a much larger endeavor. The Puget Sound Partnership, which contributed $2.6 million to the project for property acquisitions, has set the goal of restoring 7,380 acres of tidelands by 2020.

So far, 2,260 acres have been restored, but for the past two years, there haven’t been any major projects completed, said Heather Cole, the state agency’s ecosystem recovery coordinator.

“Qwuloolt really is the one to showcase this effort to break this drought we’re having, and restoring 400 acres for estuary habitat,” Cole said.

A similar estuary restoration project at the mouth of the Nisqually River near Lacey converted 762 acres to new wetlands, but most of the salmon in the river originated in hatcheries, said NOAA’s Casey Rice.

Up north, the Skagit and Nooksack river deltas also have been targeted for restoration, but again there are differences that make the Snohomish useful as a laboratory in the wild. The Skagit, for example, has the largest wild salmon runs in Puget Sound with relatively little hatchery influence, while the Nooksack has much more hatchery-reared fish, Rice said. Understanding how wetlands and hatcheries interact is an important long-term project.

“One of the things we see in the Snohomish right adjacent to the Qwuloolt is when the big hatchery releases happen, the wild fish tend to drop some,” Rice said.

Those observations will need to be backed up with statistically relevant data, he said.

“If those two salmon solutions are in conflict, we should probably know that,” he said.

And because of all those factors — plenty of restorable wetlands, good reference points nearby, and most of all, wild runs of salmon — the Snohomish River delta is one of the last best places around for this kind of project, Rice said.

“Wild salmon is over in Europe and on the east coast of North America,” he said. “This is it.”

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

Other local restoration projects

In addition to the Qwuloolt Estuary, there are several other local projects that will restore wetlands in the Snohomish River delta.

Snohomish County is restoring 350 acres of estuary on Smith Island. The county recently awarded construction bids for the project.

The Port of Everett restoring 350 acres at Blue Heron Slough on Spencer Island just east of I-5. A new berm along the freeway is under construction this year and in 2016.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Everett Marshlands project near the Lowell neighborhood would convert 829 acres. Part of the huge Puget Sound Nearshore Ecological Restoration Project, which includes 10 other projects around the region, the Marshlands project is still in its early planning stages.

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