Salmon habitat project on Smith Island to proceed

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council last week signed off on an agreement that brings it closer to creating salmon habitat on Smith Island.

The county plans to create a 350-acre wetland at the mouth of the Snohomish River. The $25 million project involves removing dikes and allowing the acreage to flood, turning it back into a saltwater estuary.

The plan has drawn opposition from businesses that share the island. They are concerned about effects on their properties from construction or saltwater flooding.

Those concerns range from construction traffic at Dagmar’s Marina, sedimentation affecting Buse Timber’s ability to float logs in the river, and saltwater degrading the soil at Hima Nursery.

The three firms, which comprise Diking Improvement District 5, had been negotiating the agreement with the county to clear the way for the project in exchange for assurances that it won’t affect their businesses.

The Snohomish County Farm Bureau plans to continue to challenge the project.

Wednesday’s decision followed a continuation of public comments from the previous week.

Ed Husmann, president of the Farm Bureau, listed a number of concerns his group has had with the project, including that the county hasn’t followed legal processes, that $25 million is an “absurd price” for a project that might return just 800 adult salmon to the area, that the county hasn’t fully investigated the project’s effects on a buried Puget Sound Energy natural gas pipeline, and that no science has been submitted that would show the project would succeed.

“This is not a restoration project,” Husmann said. “There’s no known document that shows Smith Island has ever been salmon habitat.”

Brian Dorsey, deputy prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, said the signed agreement with the diking district doesn’t commit the county to the project or even authorize the project to begin but, rather, lays down the legal framework under which the project would operate.

The County Council would have to approve a separate ordinance specifically authorizing the work to begin, Dorsey said.

Debbie Terwilleger, the director of the county’s Surface Water Management Program, explained that the project is focused on the creation of habitat for juvenile salmon. The anticipated return of 800 adults to a revitalized estuary could produce up to 250,000 juvenile fish.

Steve Dickson, the special projects manager for the county Public Works department, told the council that the county will need to get approval from Puget Sound Energy before the project can commence.

That agreement should be worked out in the next couple of weeks, Dickson said.

The council voted 3-1 to approve the agreement with the diking district, with Councilman Ken Klein voting against it, citing his opposition to converting agricultural land into an estuary and the need to expand support for local farmers.

“Until I see a reversal of those trends, a reversal of the death spiral of the farming industry, I cannot support one acre being taken out of production in Snohomish County,” Klein said.

Council Chair Dave Somers agreed in spirit but felt that much of the loss of farmland in the county started with converting farmland to development, especially in the Marysville-Arlington area, and restoring salmon habitat was also a commitment the county had to keep.

“We do need to remember that we do have a commitment to everybody, but that doesn’t mean we stop everything in our fish and estuary restoration,” Somers said.

Chris Winters: 425- 374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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