Puget Sound has lost most of its estuaries – the nutrient-rich marshlands where rivers meet the sea and where fresh water mixes with ocean salt. Industry has filled them with wharfs, ports and farms. Yet juvenile salmon and other endangered marine species need them to survive.
Earlier this month, the The Port of Everett celebrated the return of 353 acres of estuary near the mouth of the Snohomish River. Blue Heron Slough will be fully restored in the coming weeks as a final seawall is breached and the tides come in. It will be the first time in 100 years that land will be reconnected to Puget Sound.
“It’s hard to imagine, but just a month ago, the waters you see here today, they weren’t there,” Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber said as she led an unveiling ceremony on freshly turned earth at the site, a former berry farm located between the towns of Everett and Marysville.
The final stages of restoration work began with the failure of two dykes in August. She said the project started nearly 30 years ago and was one of the biggest ventures ever in the port.
“This new estuary is bigger than the Port of Everett, Seaport, Naval Station, Everett and all of Waterfront Place combined. It’s a huge project. It’s so critical for salmon and wildlife.
Members of the Tulalip tribes performed a blessing song for the ceremonies. President Teri Gobin welcomed those gathered.
“From my perspective, this project not only brings the land and water back to life, not only helps the salmon survive, but also helps the qal̕qaləx̌ič, the killer whale,” Gobin said.
The Tribes hold a conservation easement on Blue Heron Slough and will protect the land in perpetuity, for conservation purposes. Gobin also noted the tribes’ decades-long work on this critical habitat, as well as many other projects in the estuaries around the Snohomish River, “that not only benefit the tribes but the surrounding communities as well.”
Others pointed out that these benefits should not be underestimated. A great blue heron even appeared, flying past the crowd.
David Dicks, an environmental lawyer with port restoration partner Wildlands, Inc. who served as the state’s first executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership until 2010, said it was a top priority for the agency at the time. He compared it to the removal of the Elwha Dam, as it connects to two other recent estuary restorations nearby, to Smith Island and Qwuloolt. Together they total over a thousand acres – and rival the high level restoration of the Nisqually River Delta near Olympia.
“It’s not a small welfare project, you know, lighting a creek in Seattle or anything like that,” Dicks said. “It’s the real deal. It’s as good a habitat as you can imagine.
He suggests view aerial images of the project to get an idea of the scope. The work was partly funded by a decree of consent with the administrators of Port Gardner Bay, which has agreed to address legacy pollution around the former site of a Weyerhaeuser mill, investing in restoration work.
Barry Rogowski, manager of the toxic substances cleanup program at the state Department of Ecology, said the funding made possible the final phase of work on Blue Heron Slough.
He called the end result “brilliant”.
“Look around and remember that this restored land will be there forever as a habitat for salmon and other wildlife,” he said.
“This is a big deal. This is one of the largest habitat restoration sites along the West Coast. 350 acres is a significant property – it really provides an important habitat area for the most of the juvenile salmon going downhill, but also for some of the migrating fish going uphill.
Several members of the tribe agreed, but warned that there was still much to do upstream, to prevent the extinction of salmon and orcas.
“We have a lot of fish locks to open. We have water quality issues to address and a lot of other fish habitat work that needs to be done in order to recover our salmon and killer whales for future generations,” said Daryl Williams, Tulalip Tribe member and environmental liaison.
He accepted a plaque at the event honoring the decades of work done for salmon in the area by his late brother Terry Williams, who died in July.
Williams wept as he urged others to carry on that legacy.
“This is just the beginning. We have a long way to go.”