Before the breach of levees and dikes on Monday along Leque Island (left), the Stillaguamish River winds past Stanwood (upper right). (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Before the breach of levees and dikes on Monday along Leque Island (left), the Stillaguamish River winds past Stanwood (upper right). (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

‘Camano will feel a lot more like an island’ as of this week

Leque Island west of Stanwood has been restored to a salt marsh to benefit salmon, birds and people.

STANWOOD — As the tide rose in Port Susan Monday afternoon, water inched up a dirt berm on the edge of Leque Island. Just before 5 p.m., the flow seeped over the berm’s edge, rushing into a channel that cuts through the island’s grassy plain.

It was the first time saltwater flowed naturally onto the island in over 100 years, since before the almost 300-acre swath of land was diked off for farming in the early 1900s.

The last of those dikes were removed Monday as the final step in a project to restore the land to its original state as a salt marsh.

With water now on both sides of the highway at high tide, “Camano will feel a lot more like an island,” said Loren Brokaw, restoration project coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He’s been working on the project for about seven years.

“I remember when this was just a glimmer in our eyes,” he said, “and now it’s here.”

Without the dikes, saltwater will filter into six channels that excavators chiseled into the island and flood the area with about 2 feet of water, creating essential habitat for salmon and water fowl.

The project also adds more public access to the island — with a walking trail, two parking lots and two boat launches.

Leque Island lies on the south side of Highway 532, to the west of Stanwood on the way to Camano Island.

More than 40 years ago, the state began purchasing pieces of Leque Island, intending to focus on farming grain for waterfowl but later turning its attention toward estuary restoration. The agency now owns all of Leque.

Until about five years ago, contract farmers planted cereal grain to feed wintering waterfowl. Farming has since ceased. The area has become a popular spot for hunting, bird-watching and bird dog training.

The former dikes had been been failing for years, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. They’ve given way during high tides and storms. Temporary patchwork has been done, but repairs were expensive and breaches were a recurring problem.

Before the Port Susan tide rose on Monday, a break was cut on the shore of the Stillaguamish River (lower right) on Leque Island near Stanwood. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Before the Port Susan tide rose on Monday, a break was cut on the shore of the Stillaguamish River (lower right) on Leque Island near Stanwood. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Officials started looking at options for either removing or repairing Leque Island’s levees in the early 2000s, and the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board supported the effort with grants in 2004 and 2007. A plan that would have removed levees around half the island and repaired the rest was in the works in 2005 when concerns about saltwater intrusion into a Camano Island aquifer stalled the project.

The Environmental Protection Agency ruled that removing the levees wouldn’t pose a threat to the freshwater aquifer, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife returned to the project in 2013. Planners formed a 31-member volunteer advisory committee and held public meetings to gather questions, concerns and suggestions. The committee had representatives from groups that have repeatedly opposed removing dikes around the island. Opponents included the Washington Waterfowl Association and Camano Water Systems Association.

Seawater begins to inundate Leque Island on Monday after levees and dikes were removed or breached along the Stillaguamish River (lower right) near Stanwood (upper right). (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Seawater begins to inundate Leque Island on Monday after levees and dikes were removed or breached along the Stillaguamish River (lower right) near Stanwood (upper right). (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Kevin Plambeck, president of the Juniper Beach Water District on Camano, said the district would have preferred a plan that floods less of Leque.

“We’re still concerned about the aquifer and the saltwater,” he said. “That’s never diminished or changed.”

The project cost about $6 million.

As Leque Island flooded Monday, a pair of ducks made themselves at home on a newly formed pond. The island will continue to flood twice a day, and the water will begin to change the land as it forms small channels and settles into low spots. The habitat will also begin to transform as freshwater plants die off and are replaced by sedges and rushes.

These changes will take years, but fish will begin using the site almost immediately, Ducks Unlimited biologist C.K. Eidem said.

Estuary habitat is one of the most important factors in a juvenile salmon reaching adulthood, he said.

Ducks Unlimited Engineer Steve Liske watches as water pours onto Leque Island on Monday near Stanwood. (Julia-Grace Sanders / The Herald)

Ducks Unlimited Engineer Steve Liske watches as water pours onto Leque Island on Monday near Stanwood. (Julia-Grace Sanders / The Herald)

“If you’re making a sandwich and you have 10 pieces of bread but two pieces of baloney, you can only make two baloney sandwiches,” Eidem said. “The limiting factor is the baloney. For Chinook, the limiting factor is the amount of rearing habitat.”

The Leque Island restoration will also support waterfowl and migratory birds, but the focus is on Chinook salmon, Brokaw said.

As Chinook come out of the river, it’s not good for them to immediately go out into the saltwater bay. They’re too small, and have a good chance of getting eaten, Brokaw said.

Now, the juvenile fish can spend several months hanging out in the estuary, feasting on a rich food supply and getting larger quickly.

The area will be used by fish from the Skagit, Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers, department habitat biologist Lindsey Desmul said.

Leque Island has the potential to support thousands of juvenile salmon.

As the tide from Port Susan (top) rose on Monday afternoon along the mouth of the Stillaguamish River (left), saltwater poured over a break in a levee that used to protect Leque Island near Stanwood. Wildlife officials have been preparing for years to turn what was farmland into natural habitat for birds and salmon. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

As the tide from Port Susan (top) rose on Monday afternoon along the mouth of the Stillaguamish River (left), saltwater poured over a break in a levee that used to protect Leque Island near Stanwood. Wildlife officials have been preparing for years to turn what was farmland into natural habitat for birds and salmon. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

The restored 200-acre Fir Island estuary in Skagit County supports 50,000 to 65,000 baby fish, but Brokaw said that’s not an indication of how many will take up residence on Leque Island.

As excavators zipped around making finishing touches early Monday, eagles and hawks began to circle the sky.

“They know a vole exodus is about to happen,” Eidem said.

The raptors remember when small critters scurried away from the flooding next door at zis a ba, an 83-acre estuary that was restored in 2017 by the Stillaguamish Tribe.

Leque Island is one of three restoration projects in the Stillaguamish watershed, including zis a ba and another Port Susan site.

Similar work is happening regionwide, with big projects on Smith Island and other tidally influenced areas in the Snohomish River delta.

The Leque Island project will have benefits for human visitors as well.

Along the northeast portion of the area there is now a .7 mile-long berm with a walking trail instead of Eide Road and a brush-lined dike. Without a dike blocking the line of sight, views of Stanwood and the Cascade peaks of Whitehorse mountain, Three Fingers and Mount Pilchuck are now visible.

A berm (lower left) now protects the Stillaguamish River and Stanwood after the removal of levees and dikes along Leque Island (right), which was inundated with saltwater on Monday for the first time in more than a century. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

A berm (lower left) now protects the Stillaguamish River and Stanwood after the removal of levees and dikes along Leque Island (right), which was inundated with saltwater on Monday for the first time in more than a century. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

The berm also acts as a wave barrier to protect Stanwood from from extreme weather, which can create waves up to 5 feet.

There are two new boat launches. One is upriver to the east, where the department partnered with Stanwood to build a motorized boat launch near the Hamilton smokestack. On the west side of the project, there’s a new parking lot with a non-motorized boat launch. There’s also a parking lot at the head of the berm trail, where the old Eide Road was.

Public access should be open in about a week, Brokaw said.

Ducks Unlimited engineer Steve Liske has worked on the Leque Island project for a decade. He spent Monday camped out at the site waiting for it to flood.

As the sun set on Monday, saltwater filled what had been farmland on Leque Island near Stanwood. Levees and dikes were removed to let the tide onto land that had been protected for over a century. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

As the sun set on Monday, saltwater filled what had been farmland on Leque Island near Stanwood. Levees and dikes were removed to let the tide onto land that had been protected for over a century. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)

Although he likened waiting for high tide to watching paint dry, he could see his work come to fruition as water filled each of the six engineered channels.

“It’s amazing,” he said.

Moving forward, the project site will take care of itself. All that’s left to do is monitor its natural transition and track how wildlife changes.

By spring, department communications manager Seth Ballhorn said officials expect to see juvenile Chinook there gaining strength and growing bigger.

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

People look out onto Mountain Loop Mine from the second floor hallway of Fairmount Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Mining company ordered to stop work next to school south of Everett

After operating months without the right paperwork, OMA Construction applied for permits last week. The county found it still violates code.

Snohomish County Jail. (Sue Misao / Herald file)
Arlington woman arrested in 2005 case of killed baby in Arizona airport

Annie Sue Anderson, 51, has been held in the Snohomish County Jail since December. She’s facing extradition.

A Cessna 150 crashed north of Paine Field on Friday evening, Feb. 16, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. The pilot survived without serious injury. (Courtesy of Richard Newman.)
‘I’m stuck in the trees’: 911 call recounts plane crash near Paine Field

Asad Ali was coming in for a landing in a Cessna 150 when he crashed into woods south of Mukilteo. Then he called 911 — for 48 minutes.

Everett
Snohomish County likely to feel more like winter, beginning Monday

Get ready for a mix of rain and snow this week, along with cooler temperatures.

The Nimbus Apartments are pictured on Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish County has the highest rent in the state. Could this bill help?

In one year, rent for the average two-bedroom apartment in Snohomish County went up 20%. A bill seeks to cap any increases at 7%.

A Snohomish County no trespassing sign hangs on a fence surrounding the Days Inn on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Meth cleanup at Edmonds motel-shelter made matters worse, report says

Contamination has persisted at two motels Snohomish County bought to turn into shelters in 2022. In January, the county cut ties with two cleanup agencies.

A child gets some assistance dancing during Narrow Tarot’s set on the opening night of Fisherman’s Village on Thursday, May 18, 2023, at Lucky Dime in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Drive-By Truckers, Allen Stone headline 2024 Fisherman’s Village lineup

Big names and local legends alike are coming to downtown Everett for the music festival from May 16 to 18.

Sen. Patty Murray attends a meeting at the Everett Fire Department’s Station 1 on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Sen. Murray seeks aid for Snohomish County’s fentanyl, child care crises

The U.S. senator visited Everett to talk with local leaders on Thursday, making stops at the YMCA and a roundtable with the mayor.

Anthony Boggess
Arlington man sentenced for killing roommate who offered shelter

Anthony Boggess, 33, reported hearing the voices of “demons” the night he strangled James Thrower, 65.

Brenda Mann Harrison
Taking care of local news is best done together

The Herald’s journalism development director offers parting thoughts.

Lake Serene in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. (U.S. Forest Service)
How will climate change affect you? New tool gives an educated guess

The Climate Vulnerability Tool outlines climate hazards in Snohomish County — and it may help direct resources.

Ken Florczak, president of the five-member board at Sherwood Village Mobile Home community on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
How Mill Creek mobile home residents bought the land under their feet

At Sherwood Village, residents are now homeowners. They pay a bit more each month to keep developers from buying their property.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.