For years, Skagit County has been a battleground between fishermen and farmers. After a recent court victory the Swinomish Tribe is finding a way for the once warring sides to come together for the good of salmon habitat.
A few years back, the Swinomish Tribe sued Skagit County Dike District No. 22 for building tide gates without the permits they needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In September, a federal judge ruled that the district had violated both the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
With the judge’s ruling on their side, the Swinomish Tribe took the issue out of the courtroom. Instead of forcing the district to pay federal fines, the tribe suggested that the two become partners in restoring 200 acres of estuary in the Skagit delta.
It’s too bad that people sometimes need a court-ordered push to do the right thing.
In December, the tribe and the dike district filed their formal plan about how they’re going to restore that estuary habitat. The 200 acres of land proposed for restoration is owned by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and for now provides food for overwintering waterfowl.
Decades ago, at great cost to vital salmon habitat, most of the estuary was diked and drained to create farmland. Now, the salmon recovery effort is working to undo that damage and restore tidal flow so young salmon have a place to rear before heading to sea and adult salmon have somewhere to rest before returning home to spawn.
To protect farmland, tide gates let excess water drain from the fields to Skagit Bay, but keep salt water from getting in when the tides turn. Skagit County Dike District No. 22 is responsible for the construction, maintenance and operation of the system of dikes and tide gates on Fir Island, between the two forks of the Skagit River.
When three tide gates needed replacing in 2002 and 2006, the dike district moved ahead without getting permits from the Corps of Engineers. That was a violation of the Clean Water Act.
The new tide gates also prevented juvenile salmon from reaching their rearing habitat. That was a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Chinook salmon in Puget Sound have been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1999. In the Skagit, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of their recovery is a shortage of estuary habitat.
Tribes like Swinomish haven’t been able to fish like they used to, mostly because of the collapse of so many Puget Sound salmon populations. The tribe’s harvest of chinook has dropped 94 percent since 1975, and they haven’t fished a full season for more than 20 years.
Thanks to the federal judge’s decision in this case, the Swinomish Tribe and the dike district can put their differences aside and work together.
This is the spirit of cooperation that guides natural resources co-management in this area and will eventually be the reason we’re able to bring salmon back.
Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.
For more information, contact: Tony Meyer or Emmett O’Connell, NWIFC, (360) 438-1180. Kari Neumeyer, NWIFC, (360) 424-8226.