Salmon habitat project on Smith Island to proceed

 

By Chris Winters, The Herald

 

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council last week signed off on an agreement that brings it closer to creating salmon habitat on Smith Island.

The county plans to create a 350-acre wetland at the mouth of the Snohomish River. The $25 million project involves removing dikes and allowing the acreage to flood, turning it back into a saltwater estuary.

The plan has drawn opposition from businesses that share the island. They are concerned about effects on their properties from construction or saltwater flooding.

Those concerns range from construction traffic at Dagmar’s Marina, sedimentation affecting Buse Timber’s ability to float logs in the river, and saltwater degrading the soil at Hima Nursery.

The three firms, which comprise Diking Improvement District 5, had been negotiating the agreement with the county to clear the way for the project in exchange for assurances that it won’t affect their businesses.

The Snohomish County Farm Bureau plans to continue to challenge the project.

Wednesday’s decision followed a continuation of public comments from the previous week.

Ed Husmann, president of the Farm Bureau, listed a number of concerns his group has had with the project, including that the county hasn’t followed legal processes, that $25 million is an “absurd price” for a project that might return just 800 adult salmon to the area, that the county hasn’t fully investigated the project’s effects on a buried Puget Sound Energy natural gas pipeline, and that no science has been submitted that would show the project would succeed.

“This is not a restoration project,” Husmann said. “There’s no known document that shows Smith Island has ever been salmon habitat.”

Brian Dorsey, deputy prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, said the signed agreement with the diking district doesn’t commit the county to the project or even authorize the project to begin but, rather, lays down the legal framework under which the project would operate.

The County Council would have to approve a separate ordinance specifically authorizing the work to begin, Dorsey said.

Debbie Terwilleger, the director of the county’s Surface Water Management Program, explained that the project is focused on the creation of habitat for juvenile salmon. The anticipated return of 800 adults to a revitalized estuary could produce up to 250,000 juvenile fish.

Steve Dickson, the special projects manager for the county Public Works department, told the council that the county will need to get approval from Puget Sound Energy before the project can commence.

That agreement should be worked out in the next couple of weeks, Dickson said.

The council voted 3-1 to approve the agreement with the diking district, with Councilman Ken Klein voting against it, citing his opposition to converting agricultural land into an estuary and the need to expand support for local farmers.

“Until I see a reversal of those trends, a reversal of the death spiral of the farming industry, I cannot support one acre being taken out of production in Snohomish County,” Klein said.

Council Chair Dave Somers agreed in spirit but felt that much of the loss of farmland in the county started with converting farmland to development, especially in the Marysville-Arlington area, and restoring salmon habitat was also a commitment the county had to keep.

“We do need to remember that we do have a commitment to everybody, but that doesn’t mean we stop everything in our fish and estuary restoration,” Somers said.

 

Smith Island restoration project a huge win for water quality

Senator McCoy champions conservation project

Source: The Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition

People and salmon alike will benefit from a new project to protect Smith Island outside of Everett.

The Recreation and Conservation Office recently announced that the restoration of the Smith Island estuary would receive a grant from the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program. This estuary is part of the Snohomish River system, which provides the second largest volume of freshwater entering Puget Sound from a single source.

“This project will provide immense benefits, restoring salmon habitat and protecting our water quality for the next generation,” said Senator John McCoy (D-Tulalip) . “The WWRP is a critical investment in our outdoors that is essential to preserving our quality of life.”

This single project represents nearly 5% of the entire Puget Sound Ecosystem Recovery estuary restoration target for 2020.

The local match combined with more than $15 million in federal and state grants from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board, and RCO brings the total funding amount to $16,001,958.

In addition to protecting water quality, the restoration of the Smith Island estuary will also provide new recreation access. Visitors will be able to witness wildlife in a rich tidal marsh habitat minutes from Everett’s urban core.

“Two thirds of WWRP projects protect or restore Puget Sound. This level of success would not be possible without dedicated legislators like Senator McCoy,” said Joanna Grist, executive director of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. “Smith Island is a prime example of how we can increase access to the outdoors while preserving the purity of our natural treasures.”

 

 

Biologists want island for salmon habitat; farmers worry about livelihoods

Dan Bates / The HeraldA bald eagle prepares to leave its perch on Smith Island near I-5 and the Snohomish River in January.

Dan Bates / The Herald
A bald eagle prepares to leave its perch on Smith Island near I-5 and the Snohomish River in January.

Noah Haglund, The Herald

EVERETT — Biologists see Snohomish County’s Smith Island project as their best chance to revive threatened chinook salmon in the Puget Sound basin.

Others consider it a threat to their livelihood.

The project is a massive undertaking to breach an old 1930s dike along Union Slough north of Everett and build new dikes farther from the water. By flooding more than 300 acres, the county hopes to bring back some of the salmon habitat converted to farmland after settlers arrived here in the 1800s.

“The Snohomish River basin is the most important chinook-producing river in the Puget Sound area, second only to the Skagit River system,” County Councilman Dave Somers said. “Rebuilding the Snohomish River is a very top priority for the entire Puget Sound.”

By sheer size, the Smith Island proposal is the second largest estuary-restoration project in the region after the 750-acre Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in the south Puget Sound.

It will come at a price: $18 million, most of it from grants. The total includes $2 million from the city of Everett.

That’s an awful lot to pay, some argue, for a project estimated to restore 900 or so spawning adult chinook per year to the Snohomish River and its tributaries.

There’s more to the cost than what the county will pay. A neighboring lumber mill and tree farm worry that resulting changes to the estuary could put them out of business. At a minimum, they want to see the county conduct more thorough studies.

There’s also a vocal contingent of farmers dead-set against what they view as needless destruction of what is now agricultural land. State law, they correctly point out, requires the county to protect farmland, even as federal law often spells out conflicting steps to protect salmon.

You can expect to hear more about Smith Island in the coming months — and beyond. After years of study, the county on June 10 issued a final environmental impact statement. That’s a precursor to seeking permits.

Balancing the competing needs of farmers and fish is one of the trickiest feats governments in Western Washington are asked to perform. It’s why Snohomish County convened the nonpartisan Sustainable Lands Strategy three years ago to seek equilibrium.

In Snohomish County government, it’s easy to find leaders on both sides of the fish-farmer teeter-totter.

Somers, who worked as a fisheries biologist for the Tulalip tribes before joining the County Council, said there’s solid science behind the Smith Island project and its benefits for salmon.

The county arrived at this point after more than a decade of study, he said. Nobody was forced from the land.

“We bought the land from a willing seller,” he said. “We have not condemned any land.”

Councilman John Koster, a former dairy farmer, is staunchly opposed because once saltwater floods the ground, it will become unfarmable.

“The bottom line for me is it’s taking out in excess of 300 acres of farm ground when we have people looking to farm and (it flies) in the face of our mandate to conserve farm ground,” he said.

While opposed to the project, Koster can’t see any way for the county to back out. To sell the land, the county would have to repay grants used for the purchase years ago.

“This is a freight train running down the track and I don’t know that it’s even possible to stop it,” Koster said.

The fate of the Smith Island project, from here on, won’t necessarily rest with the County Council.

With a final environmental impact statement issued, people can ask Snohomish County to consider any unanswered concerns.

The county must submit a shoreline development permit, among others, before breaching dikes or any construction. That permit can be appealed after it’s issued, likely late this year. The appeal would go to a state hearings board.

Smith Island sits between Union Slough to the east and the main stem of the Snohomish River to the west.

The county project involves the part of the island east of I-5 and north of Everett’s sewage treatment plant.

Buse Timber, on the west side of I-5, is one of the businesses that could be affected. Originally founded in 1946, Buse has about 70 workers and is now employee-owned.

“We’re not opposed to the project, we just need some assurance,” said Mark Hecker, Buse’s recently retired president and a former commissioner with the local diking district.

The company has two concerns: being protected from floodwaters and being able to use Union Slough to float logs to the mill.

“We’ve never had any flooding as long as those dikes have been there,” Hecker said. “So they’re pretty strong.”

Buse wants the county to make commitments about dredging the slough if the new dike system causes it to silt up.

“That channel is pretty critical for us,” Hecker said. “If that were shut off, it would seriously impact whether we could run or not.”

Another nearby business facing potential effects is Hima Nursery, an 80-acre organic farm on the east side of I-5. Owner Naeem Iqbal worries that tampering with the dikes would prevent his land from draining properly and allow saltwater to seep in, potentially wiping out his nursery.

On Friday, Diking District 5, which is comprised of local landowners, voted to appeal the county’s final environmental impact statement. They’re asking the county for further examination the issues business owners have raised.

“Negotiations with the county have been going on for two and a half years and some of those issues aren’t resolved yet,” attorney Peter Ojala said.

If not for the fish-habitat plans on Smith Island, some farmers would like to grow crops there.

Ken Goehrs, of Everett, represents a Mount Vernon farmer who’s had trouble finding good cropland in the Snohomish Valley.

As Goehrs sees it, the county is looking to spend millions to destroy ag land. If farmed, that same land could provide jobs for dozens of agricultural workers.

“There is not enough farmland here to start with,” he said. “It’s going to destroy farmland. It’s going to take jobs out of the valley and it’s going to take taxes out of their (the county’s) coffers.”

The Smith Island project was spawned by the 1999 Endangered Species Act listing of the chinook salmon.

To address the problem, the federal government in 2007 adopted an overall Puget Sound recovery plan, part of which addresses the Snohomish River basin.

The Smith Island property, by 2001, already had been identified the best of a dozen places in Snohomish County for re-creating salmon habitat, according to a report from the county’s Public Works Department. The other sites would have carried similar costs for realigning dikes.

Federal studies have identified two distinct populations of naturally spawning chinook salmon in the Snohomish estuary: Skykomish chinook and Snoqualmie chinook. Several environmental factors, including habitat loss, have driven those populations to about 3 to 6 percent of historical levels, respectively.

The Puget Sound Partnership, which consists of government agencies, businesses and the public, said the spot near the mouth of the Snohomish River has importance beyond those two groups of salmon.

“This project potentially benefits all 22 populations of chinook in Puget Sound, including Nisqually fish leaving Puget Sound that may use the Snohomish estuary as well,” spokeswoman Alicia Lawver said.

If completed, the Smith Island project would satisfy about a quarter of the goals for restoring salmon habitat in the Snohomish River basin.