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Breakthrough week in tribal estuary restorations

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The Skagit River System Cooperative recently celebrated the success of two major estuary restoration projects.

Returning tidal flow to former estuaries is an important step toward restoring salmon habitat. Puget Sound chinook salmon are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

On Aug. 19, an excavator made the final berm cut to allow full tidal flow to 200 acres of the Crescent Harbor salt marsh on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island for the first time in about 100 years.

The salt marsh had been cut off from fish access, with a minimal tidal exchange through a tide gate built in the 1900s.

Representatives from the SRSC, which is the natural resources management arm of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes, joined U.S. Naval officials at NAS Whidbey Island to watch the tide reconnect with the existing narrow channel.

“Our ancestors walked this earth right here before there were any non-Indians,” said Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribe chairman. “They lived out here when all of this was marsh land, so to have the tidal flow reintroduced is really amazing.”

The SRSC partnered with the Navy in 2007 to fund and design the restoration, acquiring grants from the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program and Salmon Recovery Funding Board. The Whidbey Island Conservation District assisted with engineering.

Marking the success of another project, on Tuesday, Aug. 18, crews removed the last of the old dikes and levees that prevented the tide from flowing into a former estuary around Wiley Slough in the Skagit River delta.

The state-owned parcel of land, known as the Headquarters Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area, was converted from an estuary to a recreational area in 1962 – using dikes, drainage ditches, culverts and tide gates.

The 175-acre Wiley Slough restoration was proposed in 2002. It was completed in partnership with the tribes, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle City Light and the conservation group Skagit Watershed Council, with funding from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, NOAA Restoration Center and the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program.