OLYMPIA — Blocked more than 100 years by man-made dikes, the waters of Puget Sound returned to the Nisqually River estuary Wednesday, creating a watery landscape few if any people alive today have ever seen.
Five of the seven sloughs that braid their way through the river delta filled with water at high tide after decades as empty, muddy channels. The remaining two will be opened up by construction crews to tidal flows by the end of the week, said Jean Takekawa, refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I think it’s so special to see the tides moving in,” Takekawa said as she stood on a new, 10,000-foot-long dike, watching Shannon Slough glisten in the afternoon sun with water from the Nisqually Reach in South Puget Sound. “It’s hard to describe how ambitious and challenging this project has been.”
This week marks a milestone in a 12-year, $12 million effort to restore some 762 acres of estuary on the 3,000-acre Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Some 4 miles of exterior dike were removed this summer, one horizontal slice at a time. Last summer the new, exterior dike was built at the refuge to prepare for this summer’s dike removal.
More than 350,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock have been moved.
Estuaries, the places where rivers meet the sea, are considered some of the richest biological reserves on Earth.
In Puget Sound, some 80 percent of the estuary habitat has succumbed to diking, filling and development. The Nisqually Delta was no exception.
However, when conservationists banded together to protect the river delta from industrial development in the early 1970s, it paved the way for federal purchase to create a new national wildlife refuge.
This project, together with two other estuary restoration projects totalling 140 acres and completed by the Nisqually Tribe on the Pierce County side of the river, make the Nisqually home to the largest estuary recovery of its kind on the West Coast, noted David Troutt, natural resource director for the Nisqually Tribe.
“This is hugely important for fish and the overall health of Puget Sound,” he said.
Work on the Nisqually River estuary has boosted the total South Sound estuary habitat by 55 percent. Fisheries scientists predict the Nisqually estuary restoration will double survival of the river’s chinook salmon population, which is one of the stocks that landed on the federal endangered species list as a threatened species in 1999.
“Estuary restoration is the cornerstone of the Nisqually River chinook recovery plan,” Troutt said.
For instance, the estuary provides a place for young salmon to hide, rest and feed as they leave the river and enter marine waters. The estuary also is a feeding ground for adult salmon.
Some 20 shorebird species and 90 percent of the waterfowl species that use the refuge are expected to use the newly restored habitat, which helps explain why Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit conservation group, has worked on the project.
“We’ve learned in many cases that what’s good for fish is also good for ducks,” said Steve Liske, a Ducks Unlimited project engineer. “It’s a great project.”
Restoration is not without a price for the 180,000 visitors a year that veer off Interstate 5 to visit the refuge.
The return of the tidal flows eliminated in May the popular 5.5-mile looped trail atop the former perimeter dike.
“Change is really hard and this is a big change,” Takekawa said.
Loss of the popular Brown Farm Dike Trail will be buffered in part by construction next year of a mile-long boardwalk that will extend out over the estuary to the mouth of McAllister Creek.
“The boardwalk will be something really unique,” Takekawa said. “Within a year or two, most people will realize this was all for the good.”