Groundbreaking event to celebrate
Skagit Bay restoration project
OLYMPIA - A groundbreaking celebration is scheduled June 30 to mark the start of a two-year construction project in the Skagit River Delta that will support salmon recovery, protect farmland, and improve access to a popular bird-watching destination.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is sponsoring the event, which will begin at 1 p.m. at the Fir Island Farm Reserve unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area. Following a brief ceremony, WDFW project manager Jenna Friebel will lead a walking tour of the site at 2 p.m.
The reserve is located on the south end of Fir Island, about three miles southwest of Conway.
WDFW leaders will be joined by representatives of several organizations that are financing the $16.4 million project, including the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), The Nature Conservancy, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Speakers will include Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt, WDFW Deputy Director Joe Stohr, and WDFW North Puget Sound Regional Director Bob Everitt.
Other project participants include the Skagit Conservation District, Skagit County Consolidated Dike and Drainage District No. 22, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, Skagit River System Cooperative, Skagit Watershed Council, Western Washington Agriculture Association, and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO).
The Skagit is the largest river that drains into Puget Sound, but more than 70 percent of the river's historic tidal marsh habitat has been lost since the 1800s. The restoration project is designed to reverse that decline by replacing the existing dike with a new 5,800-foot dike, set back from the current shoreline by approximately 5,500 feet.
The project will restore 131 acres of tidal marsh habitat for migrating juvenile Chinook salmon, and include protections designed to reduce flooding, maintain drainage, and prevent saltwater from damaging nearby farmland, Friebel said.
The project will also preserve 100 acres of protected bird forage habitat and improve public access for people viewing snow geese, shorebirds and other waterfowl, she said.
Friebel said the groundbreaking follows six years of planning and development involving discussions with area landowners as well as state, federal, tribal and local agencies. Federal agencies provided 15 percent of the project construction costs.
PSP Executive Director Sheida Sahandy said the project represents the largest single investment -- $13.6 million - by the state's Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund (PSAR) since the fund was created in 2007. PSAR funds are appropriated by the Legislature through the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
"This project represents a major step toward restoring juvenile Chinook salmon rearing habitat in the Skagit watershed and providing important public benefits like flood protection and recreational use," Sahandy said.
RCO Director Kaleen Cottingham, whose agency administers awards from four grant programs for this project, said the habitat restoration will support about 65,000 salmon per year. "Marshes serve as a resting place for salmon as they transition from freshwater to saltwater, so the project will help young salmon at critical stages of their migration," she said.
NOAA restoration ecologist Polly Hicks said, "Estuary restoration projects are critical to salmon recovery and support the vitality of Puget Sound and its communities. In addition, the Fir Island Farm project will support other community assets, such as farming and tourism."
WDFW's primary goal this summer is to build the new setback dike as a first step toward restoring the tidal marsh, Friebel said. Next summer, crews will remove the old dike and allow the tides to establish a new shoreline.
Public access to the project site has been closed since early June, when marsh restoration work began. The popular birding area, purchased 20 years ago by WDFW as a snow-goose reserve, will be closed until early October this year and from mid-May until mid-October in 2016, which will enable bird-watchers to see snow geese return to the area in the fall.