EVERETT — One of the final pieces of the funding puzzle for an ambitious environmental project is falling into place.
Snohomish County is in line to receive $1.4 million in federal funding for its Smith Island Restoration Project, which will turn hundreds of acres of fallow agricultural land back into a salt water estuary.
The project is a $24 million effort to restore former tidelands that have long been cut off from salt water by extensive diking along Union Slough. Most of the budget already has been accounted for, with the grant money one of the final elements.
The new grant comes from the Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative, a joint effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. The initiative has earmarked $4 million for a variety of projects nationwide designed to help natural areas weather the effects of climate change.
Other recipients of the grant funding from NOAA are projects to enhance coastal reefs in Hawaii, conservation initiatives in southwest Florida and restoring coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes region.
Officials in Snohomish County, which is the lead agency on the project, would not comment on the funding because they hadn’t been officially notified they had received the grant.
“The final details have to be approved, but we expect this to move forward,” said Michael Milstein, a public affairs officer for NOAA Fisheries.
The grant money is earmarked for two adjacent tracts: 315 acres on Smith Island south and west of Union Slough, and 74 acres across the slough on Spencer Island, which is already part way to returning to its natural state.
“It’s already inundated with tidal waters so it’s low hanging fruit,” said Jay Krienitz, an Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is administering the NOAA grant.
Heavy construction work for the project is scheduled to start next spring. The county has contracted with Scarsella Brothers Inc. of Kent for $12.3 million for the construction work.
That will include building a new setback dike to protect local farmland, creating new channels in the island, filling in drainage ditches and putting in large woody material to help the area retain water.
The dikes currently keeping Union Slough at bay around Smith Island were built at least a century ago. Construction standards are tighter than they once were, and the new setback dike will be engineered to better withstand more intense flooding anticipated because of changing climate.
“Oftentimes, through our restoration projects, we make more resilient coastlines,” said Jason Lehto, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries’ Habitat Conservation and Restoration Center in Seattle.
“Not only are we giving the river a larger area to move, but also building better infrastructure,” Lehto said.
The end result should be a marshland, filled and drained by tides. That would provide valuable habitat for juvenile salmon and other native wildlife and vegetation.
The project is similar in many ways to the Tulalip Tribes’ Qwloolt Estuary, which is creating 400 acres of tidal marsh in Marysville along Ebey Slough.
The dikes at Qwloolt were breached in August, and tides have returned to the former agricultural land. Already the tract floods with each high tide and there have been salmon returning to previously inaccessible areas in the estuary.
The Port of Everett also is beginning work on its own 350-acre restoration project on Spencer Island, where Biringer Farms used to be located.