SNOHOMISH — Mike Rustay likes log jams, for good reason.
“We like log jams especially along the edge of the river,” said Rustay, senior habitat specialist with Snohomish County. “They provide a lot of fish habitat, a little natural roughness.”
About 3½ miles south of Snohomish, a path meanders alongside the levee at Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve alongside Thomas’ Eddy. At this point, it’s well worn into the ground.
Anglers use it to access the Snohomish River and the path ends in a jumbled mess of old logs at a breech in the levee. It is just the type of barrier Snohomish County and the state Fish and Wildlife Office would like to see more of. Before European settlement, the river was full of log jams and snags.
Through a NOAA-funded grant, a cohort of nonprofit environmental group as well as local and state protection agencies, received money for river and tidal restoration. Snohomish County was awarded $2.8 million for three: Thomas’ Eddy, Shinglebolt Slough and Chinook Marsh.
The piled-up, dead logs across the trail illustrate what the project aims to do.
A primary concern, historically, for loggers was to remove as many obstacles as possible so logs could float down the river. Agricultural use demanded levees to help with flood control, which changed the look of the riverbanks.
In many places, the river looks more like an engineered canal than a natural river. By taking down levees, engineering log jams and reconnecting channels, a more natural river can flourish.
“Baby salmon just love to hang out under those woodpiles,” Rustay said.
Log jams give salmon places to hide from predators. For the river to naturally revert to having snags and jams, it would take decades.
Instead, workers tie logs together, often with hemp rope, and set the bundles along the river. Rustay said the local boating community is being kept in mind with this construction and their locations may actually make the river more navigable.
“It’s gonna take 100 years before we get those trees again,” Rustay said. “In the meantime, we have to patch that function in the river system.”
Creating better stream habitat is an important part of the salmon puzzle as many fish are lost before they ever reach adulthood. The river runs too fast. Water had already chopped into many parts of the levee over the years.
“One of the selling points of this project: The county is not going to put a ton of money into a levee that’s not really protecting anything,” Rustay said. “When you have these small breeches (in the levee) you end up with really extreme velocities during floods and it just ends up being a log vacuum cleaner.”
Those log jams are good, but they can also destroy riverside trails. Once the levee is removed and reclamation work begins on riverbanks, a new trail will likely be offset from its current location.
Work is ready to begin on parts of Thomas’ Eddy and Shinglebolt Slough. Plans call for 3,685 feet of levee removal at Thomas’ Eddy. Upgrades planned for Shinglebolt Slough include removal of bridge remnants, as well as channel reconnecting work.
“It’s a really exciting time to be working in the watershed,” said Gretchen Glaub, lead entity coordinator for Snohomish Basin. “A lot of these projects have been on the backburner, really since the ’90s when salmon were first listed as endangered and it really seemed like an opportunity to accelerate what we’re doing.”
The 2021 federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is responsible for much of the funding for these projects. This round of grants — like many of those used for Whidbey Basin improvements — is handled by the state government through the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The projects affect all phases of the salmon lifecycle up and down the watershed.
“The role of the Department of Fish and Wildlife in this grant was, essentially, cat herder,” said Lindsey Desmul, a restoration project coordinator with the state. “Sometimes when a lot of funding comes our way, it needs even more collaboration to get everyone wrangled and putting forth one application.”
Through various collaborative efforts, the hope is a healthier river might emerge. Visitors to the Bob Heirman preserve might one day see the river in its more natural state. They might just see some salmon, too.
“When the system like this is really constrained, because there’s levee’s blocking the floodplain, it becomes a chute that just shoots (the salmon) out of the river,” Glaub said. “Giving the river room to move, side channels, slower moving water and shade is really important.”