When the tide returns: Fir Island Farms Estuary Restoration

Fir Island scenery

What happens when the tide returns to an ancient estuary after a 100-year hiatus? The ground sings.

“That first return of the tide, that is something incredible to see,” said Leah Kintner, Skagit River Watershed Ecosystem Recovery Coordinator at the Puget Sound Partnership.

About 50 people witnessed that first-tide in August, when the final phase of a years-long project to restore tidal processes to the Fir Island Estuary was realized.

Tide Returns
Estuary habitat is critical to migrating salmon. For the Skagit River’s Chinook salmon, a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act, lack of estuary habitat at the mouth of the river has limited their recovery. The salt marsh and tidal channels that comprise the estuary provide food and shelter to young salmon as they transition from fresh to salt water. The healthier they can get in the estuary, the better their chances of surviving in Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean.

The Fir Island Restoration project, officially complete last week, offers 126 acres of restored estuarywhere the Skagit River meets Puget Sound. The project not only benefits Skagit River Chinook salmon, but also helps protect adjacent farm land from saltwater intrusion and flooding.

The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) owns and manages the 225-acre Fir Island Farm Game Reserve, which they bought in 1995 to provide winter feeding and resting for migratory snow geese. A local farmer leases the land to plant a harvestable commercial crop followed by an over-winter cover crop of wheat for the geese. Tens of thousands of snow geese feed in the area each year between October and April.

State PSAR funding makes estuary restoration possible
In 2005, the Skagit River System Cooperative identified the Skagit River estuary habitat as a top priority for Chinook salmon recovery. WDFW undertook a feasibility study in 2009 and the Fir Island Estuary Restoration project began collecting momentum. It wasn’t until 2014, however, that the project acquired the funding it needed for construction to begin. That’s when the project received top ranking for a grant through the Puget Sound Acquisition & Restoration (PSAR) fund. PSAR provided more than 80 percent of the $16 million needed to complete the project. Of the $16 million cost of the project, $13.6 million was awarded through PSAR.

The Fir Island Estuary Restoration project was one of the first 10 regionally significant projects funded through the PSAR large capital project program in the 2013-15 biennium. Eligible projects must be based on proven science, be proposed and supported by the communities in which they take place, be aligned with the salmon recovery plan, and be approved by the statewide Salmon Recovery Funding Board To receive some of the limited PSAR funding, applicants must demonstrate how their project is a good investment.

The money for PSAR is appropriated from the state budget every 2 years by the Washington State Legislature. PSAR money contributes not only to improving salmon habitat, but to the wellbeing of people as well. In the case of Fir Island Farms, PSAR money helped to ensure continued public access for wildlife viewing, protections from flooding for farmland, and jobs that would help the local economy.

Sheida speaking at eventRestoration project bring $9.5 million and 40 jobs to local economy
For Skagit County, the Fir Island Farms Estuary Restoration project brought a welcome boost to the economy. IMCO Construction, headquartered in Ferndale, won the $9.5 million contract for the hard-hat, heavy equipment work the project entailed. The firm employed about 40 people working onsite 5 to 6 days per week. What did they accomplish? During summer of 2015, the firm built the new dike and pump station, graded the marsh, and dug pilot channels. This past summer, they removed the existing marine dike.

Sign at Fir IslandThe project wrapped up October 5 with a ribbon-cutting celebration hosted by WDFW and attended by local, regional and state partners. The Puget Sound Partnership and the Recreation & Conservation Office co-manage PSAR, and representatives from both agencies attended the celebration. Sheida Sahandy, Executive Director of the Partnership, was among the featured speakers.

“This project is a phenomenal example of what PSAR is meant to accomplish, of how salmon recovery projects go hand in hand with ecosystem recovery, up close ribbon and scissorsof how the work has the added benefit of bringing people together, focusing everyone on overcoming obstacles and differences to achieve a goal that truly benefits salmon, people and the environment,” she said.

Director of White House Council on Environmental Quality tours site
While the construction aspects of the project have ended, well-deserved attention for the revived estuary has only just begun. On Monday, October 17, the director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Christy Goldfuss, toured the area, where she heard not only the Fir Island Farms success story, but also gained an overview of the state’s investment in Puget Sound through PSAR.

Christy Goldfuss on a planeThe PSAR fund itself has had a big impact on Puget Sound recovery. In the 2013-15 biennium alone, completed PSAR projects restored and protected 1,289 estuary and nearshore acres, 770 floodplain acres, and 14 miles of rivers and streams. They have also led to the creation of 845 jobs. Over its lifespan PSAR has significantly contributed to the completion of more than 300 critical habitat projects.

We’re hoping that we’ll be able to tell a similar success story for the 2017-19 biennium. Nearly 20 new proposals for large regionally significant projects have been submitted for PSAR funding in the 2017-19 biennium. The 2017 Legislature will decide whether the funding for these project will become a reality.

more Fir Island scenery

Partners in the Fir Island Farms Estuary Restoration project:

  • Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • The Salmon Recovery Funding Board
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • Puget Sound Partnership
  • US Fish & Wildlife Service
  • Skagit Watershed Council

WDFW worked closely with Consolidated Drainage and Diking District 22 to ensure the final project meets the District’s flood protection and agricultural drainage standards.