Despite challenges, Smith Island salmon project moving ahead

EVERETT — Count Naeem Iqbal among the skeptics of an ambitious project to revive salmon habitat in the Snohomish River at the expense of farmland.

The organic farmer worries that Snohomish County could ruin his nascent business of growing pesticide-free produce. Iqbal believes saltwater could infiltrate his soil, among other problems, if the county floods some 350 acres of agricultural ground it owns next door to him on Smith Island.

Despite his misgivings, Iqbal’s Hima Nursery and two other businesses are preparing to drop a legal fight against the county’s Smith Island project. In exchange, they’re getting a string of guarantees that the $19.2 million dike removal won’t harm their businesses.

“We think it’s going to put enough safeguards (in place), that this property won’t get flooded, if the county does what it’s supposed to,” Iqbal said last week.

The Smith Island project aims to bolster populations of the threatened chinook salmon by recreating tidally influenced marshlands. Eelgrass and other features of the habitat are thought to be essential to the survival of juvenile salmon and other ocean-going fish.

The County Council has scheduled a hearing on the proposed legal agreement at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 3. If approved, it would settle four of five cases before the state’s Shoreline Hearings Board. That would clear a major obstacle for construction to start.

“This has not been the easiest conversation,” said Debbie Terwilleger, director of the county’s Surface Water Management Division. “There’s been a lot of education on both ends. We’re very excited for this piece of it to be this close to implementation.”

If all goes as planned, the county would open bidding late this year and start a two-year construction process in 2015.

In addition to Hima Nursery, appeals have been made by Buse Timber and Dagmars Marina. Their concerns include construction traffic affecting Dagmars and added silt interfering with the mill’s ability to float logs in the slough. The three businesses comprise Diking District 5, which also filed an appeal.

The county maintains that a fifth challenge, by the Snohomish County Farm Bureau, is invalid. The Farm Bureau intends to keep up the fight.

“There’s been an effort over the years to pick up marginal ag land and restore the connection to the river for salmon-recovery purposes,” County Council Chairman Dave Somers said. “This is a piece of a bigger strategy.”

The dike system in the Snohomish River estuary was built up in the late 19th and early 20th century to protect farmland. Today, it also guards critical public infrastructure, including I-5 and Everett’s sewage treatment plant.

Smith Island is one of three large fish-habitat projects under way in the estuary.

The Tulalip Tribes have the 400-acre Qwuloolt project along Ebey Slough in Marysville. The Port of Everett has similar plans for a 300-acre wetland project on Spencer Island called Blue Heron Slough.

The three projects and several smaller ones involve about 1,200 acres. That far surpasses the 750-acre Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge east of Olympia, currently the largest fish-habitat project on Puget Sound.

The county estimates the Smith Island work will aid 900 or so additional spawning adult chinook per year to return to the Snohomish River and its tributaries.

The project requires breaching a 1930s-era dike along Union Slough and building new dikes farther from the water.

The city of Everett, meanwhile, is building a 700-foot section of dike near its sewage pond, senior engineer Heather Griffin said.

The Snohomish County Farm Bureau hasn’t given up trying to stop the county project.

The group claims that state growth laws prohibit destroying designated agricultural land without going through a formal process to designate the land for another purpose.

The bureau also disagrees with the county’s characterization of the project as “restoration.”

“Our position is that the island long preceded any diking and that the 400 acres they intend to flood through moving the dikes was never in the past flooded, that this is not restoration, that this is the creation of new wetlands,” said Ed Moats, a former County Council analyst and congressional candidate who serves as the bureau’s spokesman.

Moats and others have spoken against the project at nearly every County Council public comment period this year.

Terwilleger, the county surface water director, called the Farm Bureau’s claim about the area’s past “counter to reality.”

“The notion that it was never part of a saltwater system or a brackish system is something the natural history and the geology just don’t support,” she said.

Back at Hima Nursery, Iqbal is excited about a farming experiment he’s been conducting for about five years.

A few dozen sheep roam the land by I-5. A young orchard sprouts apple and cherry trees, as well as quince, a pear-shaped fruit popular in Turkey.

Iqbal grows late-season strawberries. Elsewhere, he’s harvesting onion, fennel, dill, garbanzo beans and chard.

“It came out of the passion that we need to grow our own food and stop eating from the factory farms,” said Iqbal, 49, who has spent most of his working life in the construction business.

His enthusiasm, however, is tinged with anxiety that the county’s salmon project could harm crops with saltwater or pollutants — even though the county will compensate him if that happens.

“Once you introduce the saltwater into the soil,” he said, “it takes a long time to repair.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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