Marsh restoration protects salmon habitat and agricultural needs

The Swinomish Tribe is moving to the next phase of a restoration project that balances salmon needs with agricultural ones.

Earlier work opened up fish habitat in the Smokehouse floodplain and tidelands by replacing fish-blocking culverts with bridges and installing self-regulating tide gates in place of outdated models. The upcoming work will add 120 more acres of wetland habitat with a dike setback along the Swinomish Channel.

“While fish-friendly tide gates certainly improve the movement and use of the once-isolated habitats for salmon, they are far from being as productive as more aggressive restoration actions such as dike setbacks,” said Steve Hinton, restoration director for the Skagit River System Cooperative, the natural resources extension of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes. “Dike setbacks enjoy broad support from a spectrum of the community who seek the most effective restoration actions supporting salmon recovery.”

The setback will follow a historic channel, allowing for the removal of a dike that was built when the Skagit Valley was settled and the tidelands drained for agricultural use. The new dike is expected to offer long-term protection for the farmland. Since the property was returned to tribal ownership in 2000, project partners have aimed to restore the habitat for salmon on tribal lands while maintaining the land for farming.

“The Swinomish Tribe is proud of the restoration and water quality monitoring efforts that we have undertaken in the Flats – our local name for the Smokehouse floodplain,” said Todd Mitchell, the tribe’s environmental protection director. “The goals of these continuing efforts are to document habitat and water quality improvements and effectiveness of self-regulating tide gates.

While some of the land continues to be farmed for potatoes, project partners have planted about 54,000 native plants along more than 83 acres of the riparian corridor for wildlife and future tribal traditional plant projects. An additional 37 acres have been passively revegetated with salt marsh species and the tidal channels are again being used by juvenile chinook, Dungeness crab and other species that had been unable to access the site.

“We intend to continue to tell the story of the site’s evolution for generations to come and will eagerly engage those who wish to learn about our efforts,” Mitchell said. “This area provides a great example of a large experimental site that can frame beautifully the discussion of working lands and the power of managing land and water resources in concert with community needs.”

Ongoing site monitoring is tracking anticipated effects of climate change. So far, natural marsh growth is keeping pace with sea level rise.

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