EVERETT — Snohomish County was awash with praise from federal and state fisheries officials Monday for years of work on the Smith Island salmon habitat project.
Heavy construction on the project in the Snohomish River basin is expected to get under way during the spring. The goal is to restore tidally influenced marshland long cut off by dikes. Planning began shortly after the federal government’s 1999 listing of the Puget Sound chinook salmon as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Will Stelle, west coast regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, characterized the project as “ground zero for long-term Puget Sound restoration and salmon recovery.”
“We’re fish heads, so we care a lot about fish,” Stelle told elected leaders and county staff. “But it’s much more than just fish. It’s how we live, work and walk and develop on the landscape as a whole. It’s upland and it’s downstream, because everything flows downstream.”
He presented the county with the agency’s Excellence in Restoration award.
The county project involves about 400 acres between Union Slough and I-5, including former farmland. State and federal grants are paying for most of the estimated $26 million cost. The city of Everett is a partner in the work.
The county awarded a $12.3 million grant this summer to Scarsella Brothers Inc. of Kent to build new dikes and drainage systems. A future bid will be awarded to breach existing dikes, allowing much of the area to flood.
The recent bid came in about $2.5 million under engineers’ estimates, public works director Steve Thomsen said.
“It’ll be in construction for a couple of years,” Thomsen said.
Once complete, the project will constitute a major step toward reaching habitat-restoration benchmarks that the county and other stakeholders have identified for the area. It complements two other major salmon-habitat projects in the Snohomish River basin.
The Tulalip Tribes breached levees on the similarly sized Qwuloolt project near Marysville in August.
Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman for a state agency called the Puget Sound Partnership, called Smith Island a “sister project” to the tribes’ effort. She described time-lapse imagery showing the habitat’s return to life.
“It looks like the lungs and the heart of the Sound were once again expanding and contracting,” Kongsgaard said. “And the fish were there the next day. It’s just almost cliche to say if you fix it they will come.”
The Port of Everett’s Blue Heron Slough project also aims to restore about 350 acres of estuary on Spencer Island at the former Biringer Farm site.