Marshland project unlikely to improve fish habitat

After reading “Everett Marshland’s future a bit muddy,” in the Nov. 4 Herald, I feel it is my civic duty to make some comments.

I am no stranger to this subject; I am a retired biologist who spent 32 years reviewing environmental impact statements and managing wetlands, including Spencer and Ebey Islands.

First, if this project was submitted by a non-government entity it would not be given any hope of progressing. Each project within this document is unique and must have its own environmental impact statement. To lump 11 projects into one document and request comments as one EIS, in 45 days, is laughable, but the government did it because they can. Below I would like to add my comments which generally apply to all the projects.

Cost estimates and benefits: Cost is purely an educated guess if everything goes perfectly. Also a low cost estimate has a much better chance of approval and funding. But the original estimate is usually not even close to the actual cost. I am sure everyone has read about projects that are way beyond budget (Big Bertha anyone?), so it is reasonable for readers to inflate the cost estimates by a factor or three or more to get something close to reality. And with similar logic, is it beneficial for project approval to estimate benefits as high as possible. In reality, the expected benefits rarely meet expectations.

Restoring wetlands: All of the lands are already wetlands. If you doubt this try getting a building permit. These wetlands already support a large variety of wildlife. If grazed, wetlands host a variety of waterfowl, hawks, owls, shorebirds, frogs and song birds. If the area is returned to tidal mud flats where is the habitat mitigation for these species?

Enhancing salmon habitat: When the south end dikes of Spencer Island were breached about 1990 there were great expectations for fish use. The fish use and habitat changes were monitored extensively by state, county and federal agencies, but the expected increase in fish use was minimal, while the costs were substantial.

Increasing salmon population: The cheapest way to increase fish numbers is to build and operate a hatchery. Critics point out the low return rate and impact on native fish. But the reality is there is no net loss of fish. Orcas and marine mammals are fed by the hatchery fish, as are diving ducks like grebes and scoters, all of which are either endangered or on the threatened list. It is not feasible to raise any of these non-fish species in a hatchery, but one can raise salmon and the “loss” is a gain for the other species. Even fish that are not eaten will die and provide food for insects, which in turn are food for fish. In addition, if you believe in global warming the future of “native” salmon is not very rosy. The rivers will be subject to more quick flooding which scours the gravel where the eggs are laid. This results in a loss of an entire generation of young. In addition, the rivers will be lower in the summer causing warmer waters and fish stranding. The ocean is also becoming warmer and less productive.

Farmland and water: As the climate becomes drier at some point there will not be enough water to make it feasible to farm the deserts of Washington and California. Already California is questioning the use of water to farm the San Joaquin valley. The sub-irrigated lands of western Washington, lands like Everett Marshland, may be prime farmland in 20 years. With this proposal it will be mud flats, and other agricultural lands will be returned to salt water. The productive Kent valley has long since been lost to several feet of gravel and blacktop. Do we want local products, or pay the price of burning fossil fuels to have them shipped from China or Brazil?

The bottom line is that society can never bring back salmon, or trout, and shoreline habitats to what it was in the past. There are too many pressures on the land and waters to satisfy the needs of people, such as homes, roads, business, timber, fish, parks, etc. Some habitat modification projects make sense, but it takes more detailed analysis and a vision of what is needed 20 years in the future. Given a ballpark figure of $25 million for construction of just one fish hatchery, spending taxpayer funds of $1.2 trillion for the 11 projects is a poor investment if the primary purpose is for increasing fish numbers.

Curt Young is a Snohomish resident.

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