A goldfinch feeds Saturday morning on Leque Island in Stanwood on July 8, 2017. Leque Island will close for a major habitat restoration project starting later this month. The failing levees around the island are going to be removed. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Project on Leque Island in Stanwood all for salmon, wildlife

STANWOOD — Several hundred flood-prone acres that were used as farmland for more than a century are being transformed into a saltwater marsh.

Work is set to start this month on a project that, over the next few years, is meant to carve out tidal channels, build earth mounds and remove levees around Leque Island, located between Stanwood and Camano Island.

Leque is closing to the public starting July 17 for the first phase of the roughly $6 million project. The closure is expected to last until the middle of October.

During that time, crews plan to dig channels, fill ditches and build elevated mounds of earth that would stay above water. In 2018 or 2019, they expect to demolish levees around the island, allowing the tide to fill Leque.

The 300-acre swath of land was used for farming beginning in the early 1900s. Farmers put up dikes around the perimeter. Up until three 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 dikes have been failing for years, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. They’ve given way during high tides and storms. Temporary patchwork has been done, but repairs are expensive and breaches are a recurring problem.

Before it was farmland, Leque Island was a saltwater marsh that would have provided estuary habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl and salmon, project coordinator Loren Brokaw said.

“In the Stillaguamish Watershed, 85 percent of historic estuary marsh area doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s mostly because when people moved in we created levees to be able to live and farm here,” he said.

The importance of the marshes to species such as salmon wasn’t widely understood, he said. It’s where juvenile salmon hide, feed and grow.

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

The budget for the restoration is between $5 million and $6 million. State and federal grants support this summer’s work, about $1 million. The rest of the funding is uncertain, Brokaw said. The department is waiting on the state’s capital budget and federal grants.

Work started on designs for Leque Island in the early 2000s. More than a decade ago, they stalled due to concerns that saltwater could intrude into a nearby freshwater aquifer. The Environmental Protection Agency determined that removing levees would not threaten the aquifer, and the project resumed about four years ago.

A 31-member advisory committee included members from groups who have opposed the project. The Washington Waterfowl Association and Camano Water Systems Association argued for keeping and repairing the levees. The committee narrowed options to six designs, among them complete levee removal, selective breaches, rebuilding the levees or leaving them as they are. In 2015, the state decided on removal. Planners agreed to longterm monitoring for saltwater intrusion, and another committee is planning for future recreation options at Leque.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with the city of Stanwood on a boat launch at nearby Hamilton Park. That would give boaters better access to Leque, and the mounds being built could become places for hunting or bird watching blinds.

There has been concern that removing the levees would increase the flood risk to lowland neighborhoods in Stanwood. Modeling was done to look at how removal would change the area, Brokaw said. If needed, some levees may be preserved as a wave break. Final studies and designs still are in the works.

“We certainly don’t want to make the surrounding area any more at risk for flooding,” he said.

People can email loren.brokaw@dfw.wa.gov to be added to the Leque project email list. More information also is available online at wdfw.wa.gov.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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