After levee breach, marine life returns to Qwuloolt Estuary

MARYSVILLE — It’s been two months since the levee at the Qwuloolt Estuary was breached, letting the tides return to the lowlands for the first time in a century.

There are early signs that the action is having its intended effect.

“We’re already seeing marine species like smelt come in,” said Morgan Ruff, the Snohomish Basin Capital Program Coordinator for the Tulalip Tribes.

Biologists monitoring the changes to the landscape have also caught an adult coho salmon in the new estuary.

It’s still early in the process, Ruff said, too early to begin quantifying the results of the project. But the anecdotal signs instill a sense of optimism.

“It’s pretty amazing that as soon as you open up the habitat, the fish start using it immediately,” she said.

Ruff’s update was part of a presentation on Saturday at Sound Living 2015, a one-day conference put on by the Washington State University Snohomish County Extension Beach Watchers program.

The one day event at Mukilteo Presbyterian Church featured half a dozen speakers on various environmental themes, from Salish Sea orcas to beach safety.

Ruff also showed a time-lapse video of the levee breach and subsequent flooding over several days’ time.

Other signs of change in Qwuloolt include a gradual dying off of invasive reed canary grass and its population of rodents.

Much of Ruff’s talk was devoted to the importance of estuary restoration in general, with Qwuloolt providing the most recent example of work to restore salt marshes to the river deltas.

Estuaries provide habitat for juvenile salmon, where they can feed and grow until they head out to sea.

Over the past century, Ruff said, more than 80 percent of historic habitat has been lost to development.

Even after the start of the environmental movement in the 1970s, populations of the nine species of anadromous fish in the basin continued to decline through the early 2000s.

Add to that the continuing effects of environmental change, including more fall floods that harm young fish, and lower summer water flows that keep returns down, and it’s an uphill climb to try to encourage the growth of anything approaching historical returns.

“Our scale is pretty heavily tipped. It’s a challenging place to be if you’re a small fish,” Ruff said.

The ultimate goal outlined in the county’s Snohomish River Basin Salmon Conservation Plan is to bring the population back up to 80 percent of its historic numbers through a combination of habitat protection, restoration, and smart harvesting and hatchery operations.

This is happening at a time when the population of the Puget Sound region is expected to grow to 5 million by 2040, with all the necessary attendant infrastructure, said Erika Harris, a planner with the Puget Sound Regional Council, who was also speaking at Sound Living.

Continued development has led to low stream flows, increased water temperatures, degraded quality of freshwater and sediment — all the things habitat restoration is intended to counteract.

“This paints a pretty gloomy picture when we know the region is going to continue to grow,” Harris said.

The Qwuloolt Estuary is one of three large restoration projects in the Snohomish River basin that are part of the Puget Sound Partnership’s plan to restore 7,380 acres of tidelands by 2020. In addition to the 315 acres of estuary in Qwuloolt, Snohomish County plans to restore 350 acres on Smith Island and the Port of Everett’s Blue Heron Slough project is transforming a similar-size tract on what used to be Biringer Farm next to I-5.

It’s taken the Tulalip Tribes 20 years and $20 million in funds to get the Qwuloolt Estuary to where it is today. Scientists will continue to monitor the new tidal marsh as it continues to return to its natural state.

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

Talk to us

More in Local News

Chickens on pasture at Skylight Farms in Snohomish. (Petrina Fisher)
As bird flu spreads to 7 counties, Snohomish County farms on watch

No cases of avian flu have been confirmed here. But its arrival could be devastating for poultry farmers.

A ferryboat. (Washington State Ferries)
Mukilteo-Clinton ferry riders get their two-boat service back

The Edmonds-Kingston route could be next, depending on COVID-19 cases and crew shortages.

Norris the plains zebra grazes on some grass Wednesday, May 4, 2022, at Flying M Ranch and Horses in Lake Stevens, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Norris the zebra is fitting in with his new herd near Lake Stevens

Black-and-white stripes are a vibrant pop against the farmland at Flying M Ranch and Horses in rural Snohomish County.

Herald photographers are out and about, capturing scenes from across Snohomish County.
Photography: the extracurricular shots

Herald photographers are out and about, capturing scenes from across Snohomish County.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mukilteo in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Mukilteo man missing for over 24 hours found dead

Kook Byung Choi, 84, was found in woods near where he went missing in Mukilteo.

Juan Luna, left, and Jeff Austin tune up bicycles to be donated Tuesday afternoon at Sharing Wheels Community Bike Shop in Everett, Washington on May 10, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Afghanistan, Ukraine refugees get bikes, bus passes and rides

One nonprofit needs volunteers to repair 40 kids bikes for refugees. Another agency could use cash gift cards.

Sarah Alper works on packing a Community Supported Agriculture box at Lowlands Farm on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 in Snohomish, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
In Snohomish County, CSA produce boxes are safety nets for small farms

Community Support Agriculture programs give farmers guaranteed income, regardless of freak weather or hungry deer.

A woman was struck by a car while crossing HIghway 99 on Dec. 2, 2021. (Lynnwood Police Department)
Woman charged in Highway 99 death of Lynnwood pedestrian, 72

Prosecutors allege Tachelle Thomas was under the influence of THC when she hit and killed Fozieh Shirdelhefzabad, 72, in 2020.

Everett
Public bathrooms downtown, cleanup program approved by Everett council

The City Council voted on how to spend $1.1 million in relief funds, including a three-year “Clean Everett” plan.

Most Read