Crescent Harbor Creek whooshed over rocks and gurgled mid-channel as it meandered to the lagoon at the harbor, and Josephine Jefferson of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community pointed out that what people were hearing was the sound of life. 

“The sound of the water you hear is a blessing,” said Jefferson, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. “Water is life. It helps set the table when the tide goes out.”

Visitors walk to the mouth of the restored Crescent Harbor Creek. The creek, which had been converted to a drainage ditch by early 1900s farmers, was recreated along its historic course.

The creek wasn’t always like this. More than a century ago it was made into a straight, deep ditch to drain the watershed for agricultural uses. It was devoid of plants and trees that helped keep water temperatures cool and supported the food web. 

The U.S. Navy acquired the site and made it part of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in 1941. In 2021, the Navy and Skagit River System Cooperative (SRSC) partnered to restore a quarter-mile length of stream. SRSC is the natural resources arm of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes.  

Juvenile chinook are expected to immediately begin using the restored creek, where they will acclimate and mature before heading out to the big water.

“Every restoration project, regardless of size, is an important piece of the overall puzzle,” said Swinomish Chairman Steve Edwards during a tour of the restoration site in February. “You look at all the small pieces, and at the end of the day it’s one big project. Every little step you take makes a difference. That’s success, because you’re moving in the right direction.”

Swinomish Tribe Chairman Steve Edwards thanks Capt. Eric Hanks, commanding officer of NAS Whidbey Island, for the Navy’s collaboration in restoring Crescent Harbor Creek.

SRSC and the Navy have partnered since 2009 on restoration work in the Crescent Harbor Salt Marsh, a 206-acre pocket estuary within the boundaries of the Naval Air Station. Stream restoration was done in September, October and November 2021. 

The project restored 1,400 feet of stream along its historical alignment; increased the channel length within the project area by 40 percent; constructed 12 pools; installed 68 log structures and streambed gravel along the length of the restored stream; and planted 4 acres along the banks of the restored stream with 2,200 tree and shrub species.

The project was funded by the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Pacific Salmon Commission Southern Fund and the Navy, and managed by SRSC and NAS Whidbey Island.

Cultural resource investigation and monitoring was performed in coordination with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians. Swinomish will continue to monitor the site, Jefferson said. Coastal sites such as this have been used for thousands of years by Coast Salish people.

“The presence of cultural resources is a high probability anywhere near the water,” she said.

Fred Cayou of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community looks out over the Crescent Harbor estuary that is rearing habitat for salmon.

The Crescent Harbor Salt Marsh is one of the largest historic pocket estuaries on Whidbey Island.

Nearly 80 percent of Whidbey Basin pocket estuaries are inaccessible to juvenile salmon or have been greatly altered from their historic conditions, said Eric Mickelson, restoration ecologist and SRSC project manager. 

Restoration of the Crescent Harbor Salt Marsh was eased by the fact it has one owner – the Navy – while almost all the other pocket estuary sites on the island have dozens of surrounding landowners, making restoration more challenging.

Capt. Eric Hanks, commanding officer of NAS Whidbey Island, and Chairman Edwards spoke of the collaborative relationship between the Navy and the tribe that smoothed this project to completion. 

Four acres along the banks of the restored stream were planted with 2,200 tree and shrub species.

Hanks, a Louisiana native, said he knows that salmon are important to the customs and traditions of Coast Salish people, and important to the ecosystem as well. “It’s important for the Navy to be a valued partner in this restoration work,” he said.  

“To see the work that’s been done is special,” Edwards said. “The importance of salmon to our people is monumental. It’s part of our culture and it’s been part of our diet for thousands of years. It’s great to see our relationship growing and our communities coming together. We need that.” 

Above: The Skagit River System Cooperative and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island teamed up to restore a creek at Crescent Harbor. Juvenile salmon will use the creek to acclimate. Photos and story: Richard Walker