Putting the wet in wetlands

MARYSVILLE — A vast expanse of land where salmon once spawned will be restored to wetlands within two years, according to a plan by the Tulalip Tribes.

For the first time since the late 1800s, high tide will mean that about 400 acres around Jones and Allen creeks, which branch out northeast of Ebey Slough, will flood.

That’s what ecologists for the Tulalip Tribes want.

“We’ll remove the human impediments,” said Maria Calvi, a restoration ecologist for the tribes. “We won’t create much of anything, but we’ll remove the levee and four tide gates.”

The levee and tide gates were built more than 100 years ago, when settlers saw farming potential in acreage naturally irrigated by Jones and Allen creeks. Since then, development swallowed up more than 80 percent of the Snohomish River basin’s estuary habitat, an environment where salmon, waterfowl and a host of other creatures thrive, Calvi said. The creeks, which once extended deeper inland, now end and funnel into ditches in the middle of the site.

The Tulalip Tribes Qwuloolt Estuary Restoration project, valued at more than $13 million, will restore about 2 percent of what’s been lost, Calvi said.

This week, tribal crews began furrowing out a path for the creeks based on historic records of where they once flowed.

“We’re creating a template on the site,” Calvi said.

The water will come by 2010, when crews expect to finish removing four tide gates and about 3,000 feet of levee. The tribes are also paying for a new levee, one tribal leaders say will protect Brashler Industrial Park, just north of the site, and the city of Marysville’s sewage treatment lagoon, which sits to the east.

At high tide, Calvi expects, the water will rush into the 400-acre area and fill Jones and Allen creeks to historic levels. Over time, vegetation will return, and salmon will spawn in an abundance not seen since Washington’s early statehood.

“There are already spawning beds on these creeks, ready and waiting,” Calvi said.

“The table is set,” Tulalip tribal Chairman Mel Sheldon said, using a phrase favored by tribal members when they describe the thriving ecosystem that existed centuries ago.

For the Tulalip Tribes, the Qwuloolt project is a lesson learned.

Between 1964 and 1979, the Tulalip Tribes used a section of land near the mouth of Ebey Slough as a garbage dump.

“It was the best technology they knew at the time,” Sheldon said.

The Environmental Protection Agency placed the landfill in a priority list for cleanup in 1991. By 2000, the site was capped to prevent toxic waste from seeping out. To fulfill mitigation requirements, the tribes proposed restoring 300 acres of wetlands that could otherwise be at risk for development, according to EPA documents.

The area northeast of Ebey Slough was chosen because it is close to the old landfill site, said Daryl Williams, an environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes.

“The Qwuloolt site is larger than what we needed to mitigate as damages, but we were able to get other dollars for wetland restoration to do the project,” he said.

For the past 10 years, the tribes have spent about $10 million to slowly buy property until most of the area that was once wetland belonged to them. The city of Marysville has also designated about 10 acres to include in the project, Calvi said.

Removing the tide gates and pieces of the existing levee will cost more than $3 million, she said. That funding is coming from the tribal government and partners including the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others.

Marysville officials are planning to create a waterfront park in the wetlands, and build walkways to wend through the estuary, Marysville spokesman Doug Buell said.

“It will cut through the acreage and give people an up-close glimpse of all the environmental features that are out there,” he said. “It will be like you’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

For the tribes, restoring the estuary is a big step toward growing salmon runs.

Regulations on fisheries and other initiatives help restore salmon populations in small handfuls, Calvi said.

“But if we can change the habitat just a little bit, there will be a big increase.”

Reporter Krista J. Kapralos: 425-339-3422 or kkapralos@heraldnet.com.

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