Levee breach improves fish access to entire Snohomish watershed

Tulalip field specialist Michael Abrahamse, left, and NOAA biologist Casey Rice beach seine for fish using the newly restored Qwuloolt Estuary.
Tulalip field specialist Michael Abrahamse, left, and NOAA biologist Casey Rice beach seine for fish using the newly restored Qwuloolt Estuary.

After 20 years of planning and $20 million invested by a number of partners, the Ebey Slough levee was breached in late August, restoring tidal flow to the 400-acre Qwuloolt Estuary in Snohomish County.

Named for the Lushootseed word for “marsh,” the Qwuloolt restoration was led by the Tulalip Tribes and is one of the largest in Puget Sound. A lack of quality spawning and rearing habitat is the main reason for declining salmon populations in the region. Treaty tribes in western Washington have restored thousands of miles of habitat with the goal of recovering salmon runs to sustainable levels.

Ebey Slough was diked and drained 100 years ago to create farmland, cutting off fish access to valuable salt marsh habitat. Efforts at watershed management began in the late 1980s, with the formation of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority under then-Gov. Booth Gardner.

Tulalip tribal member Terry Williams, who is now the tribes’ natural resources commissioner, was part of that process.

“While creating the watershed program, we realized that at the time, it was legal to build dikes in the estuary, but it was illegal to use funding to tear them down,” he said. “We set out in that first plan to change that and we did.”

The Water Quality Authority evolved into the Puget Sound Partnership, setting a goal of restoring Puget Sound by 2020.

So far, the tribes and Snohomish County have accomplished their 10-year goal, Williams said.

“Originally in the Puget Sound Partnership, we said we’d get about 1,100 or 1,200 acres restored in the estuary and we’re now at over 1,500,” he said.

Before the levee was breached on Aug. 28, juvenile fish could out-migrate through tide gates, but adult fish were blocked from returning to the estuary, said Casey Rice, biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“This one estuary breach affects the whole watershed,” he said.

Rice, along with Tulalip natural resources staff, is monitoring changes to water quality and fish use of the habitat before and after the breach. A week after tidal flow was restored, the team found both a juvenile and an adult coho salmon in the estuary.

“This habitat is so crucial to migrating and juvenile salmon, providing food and refuge for those fish,” said Kurt Nelson, manager of the Qwuloolt Estuary project for Tulalip. “It’s the intent of this project to increase production and quantity of those salmon that are extremely important to the tribe for cultural and economic purposes.”

While Tulalip was responsible for stream and tidal channel restoration, berm construction and native planting, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the setback levee and did the actual breach. Other partners include the city of Marysville, NOAA, state Department of Ecology, Salmon Recovery Funding Board, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, among others.

“We all have a common goal together,” said Bonnie Juneau, member of the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors. “It was really about our environment; putting our environment back so that our children and our grandchildren would have a better place to live.”

View a time-lapse video of the levee being breached.

Media coverage of the Qwuloolt project:

Everett Herald:
Qwuloolt Estuary Project’s goal: Return of the wild salmon
Century-old levee is breached to welcome a tide of salmon

KIRO-TV: Levee breached on Snohomish River in attempt to save salmon

Arlington Times: Estuary dream comes true

North County Outlook: Levee breach helps restore habitat