Swinomish Tribe’s Restoration Improves Fish Passage Beside Farmland

Swinomish environmental director Todd Mitchell observes a self-regulating tide gate that is mostly under water in the Smokehouse tidelands.
Swinomish environmental director Todd Mitchell observes a self-regulating tide gate that is mostly under water in the Smokehouse tidelands.

By Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


Farming interests in Skagit County often seem at odds with salmon habitat restoration, but an ongoing project by the Swinomish Tribe aims to show that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The tribe owns the land known as the Smokehouse tidelands along the Swinomish Channel south of the Swinomish Casino and Lodge. Historically, the land was part of a system of channels that served as estuarine rearing habitat for Skagit River salmon. When the Skagit Valley was settled, the tidelands were diked and drained for agricultural use.

Since 2005, the tribe has restored tidal flow and improved fish passage to the channels by replacing four traditional flap gates with self-regulating tide gates. In addition, three culverts have been replaced by bridges, and several have been removed.

“The big advantage is for fish, but the tide gates also have improved drainage capacity,” said Todd Mitchell, Swinomish environmental director. “As more water comes in, more water goes out. We don’t have the ponds of standing water that you see on other farmland after heavy rain.”

Fifty-foot buffers have been planted between the channels and the farmland. Some of the land will remain in agricultural use, with the tribe leasing it to farmers and monitoring for saltwater intrusion.

“Continued farming provides income for the Swinomish Tribe,” said Steve Hinton, restoration director for the Skagit River System Cooperative, the natural resources extension of the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes. “The goal is to see that agriculture and salmon can not only survive, but thrive in the same space.”

The long-term plan is for riparian corridors, tidally connected channels and estuarine wetlands to exist alongside agricultural production.

“Resolving the differences between these competing uses of the resource are essential to significant and meaningful restoration of chinook rearing habitat across the Skagit delta,” Hinton said.

Fix White River Dam, Fish Passage

By Billy Frank, Jr., Chairman, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission

OLYMPIA – A crumbling 103-year-old fish-blocking diversion dam and inadequate fish passage system on the White River near Buckley need to be replaced because they are leading to injury and death for hundreds of threatened salmon, steelhead and bull trout, slowing salmon recovery efforts in the river system.

It’s common for some adult salmon to display a few cuts, scrapes and scars by the time they complete their ocean migration and return to spawn. That can take two to six years depending on the species.

But more and more fish are now being found at the foot of the diversion dam with gaping wounds and other injuries caused by exposed wooden boards, steel reinforcement bars and other parts of the deteriorating structure. Many of those fish later die from their injuries.

At the same time, an explosive revival of pink salmon has overwhelmed the inadequate trap-and-haul fish passage system operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At two years, pink salmon have the shortest life cycle of all salmon and are abundant in the Puget Sound region. Pink salmon returns to the White River have shot up in the past decade from tens of thousands to close to a million.

That’s led to massive crowding of returning adult spring chinook, steelhead and migrating bull trout at the foot of the diversion dam where salmon continually try to leap over the structure – injuring themselves in the process – in their effort to move upstream and spawn. All three species are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The diversion dam, constructed in 1910, sends water from the river to Lake Tapps. The dam prevents adult salmon from reaching the Mud Mountain Dam farther upstream, which is also impassable to salmon. Instead, fish are collected in a 73-year-old trap just below the diversion dam, then trucked upriver and released above Mud Mountain Dam.

There’s been a lot of talk but no action to fix the fish passage problem in the river.

Back in 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological opinion under the Endangered Species Act requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to upgrade the fish trap. So far, the Corps has ignored the order, claiming that it doesn’t have the money. NMFS, meanwhile, has turned a blind eye to the Corps’ documented illegal killing of ESA-listed salmon.

In 1986, only a handful of spring chinook returned to the White River, but today those returns number in the thousands because of the cooperative efforts of the Muckleshoot and Puyallup tribes, state government and others.

The Corps and NMFS need to step up to the plate and do their jobs. When they don’t, what they are really saying is that salmon, treaty rights, and years of effort and investment by so many of us here in Puget Sound don’t really matter.