Restoration work at Qwuloolt estuary nearly finished

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TULALIP — The effort to restore a large part of the original Snohomish River Delta estuary near Marysville has been slow and painstaking, but for those working on the project, the reward is in sight.

Crews recently began building a new earthen dike along the western edge of 360 acres of former marshland.

That new dike will allow another, older dike to be breached so saltwater can flood the area at high tide for the first time in decades.

When that happens -- the breach is planned for late next year -- salmon and trout can start to reclaim some of their historical spawning grounds in creeks that flow through the site, say those working on the project.

When it's completed, the Qwuloolt estuary -- the word means "large marsh" in Lushootseed, the local native language -- will be one of the largest marsh restoration projects in the state.

The re-evolution of the site will take time.

"We will not see the benefits of this project in our lifetime," said Glen Gobin, a member of the Tulalip Tribes board of directors, at a groundbreaking celebration on Tuesday. The event was attended by about 60 people.

"Our children will see it, their children will see it, their grandchildren will see it," Gobin said.

Just getting to this point on the $9 million endeavor has been a long time coming, participants said.

Beginning more than a century ago, the estuary was extensively diked and gated to create farmland. Most of the wetlands, which provided a place for juvenile fish to eat, grow and acclimate to saltwater, were lost.

A tidegate was installed at the joint mouth of Allen and Jones creeks. It's pushed open by the creek water at low tide and pushed shut again by saltwater at high tide, leaving a very small window for fish to return.

Slow process

Nearly 20 years ago, the Tulalips began talking about restoring the Qwuloolt area to its original state.

Much of the land was in private hands, so the tribes had to buy property piece by piece. Some parcels were owned by the city of Marysville. Most of the land hasn't been farmed in years.

The Tulalips realized they couldn't do the project alone. Slowly, Marysville and other governments were brought on board.

The work at times was a crawl, said Kurt Nelson, environmental division manager for the tribes.

"I'd like to thank my wife and family because I've been a Qwuloolt-aholic for the past 10 years," he said at Tuesday's event.

Eventually, 11 different agencies became involved. Funding came from 22 different pots of cash among those agencies, Nelson said.

"Projects of this size take a lot of money and no one source has the amount needed to complete this," he said.

The last $2 million came from the federal government to allow work on the new dike to begin, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said Tuesday. It will protect the city of Marysville's Wastewater Treatment Plant and businesses and neighborhoods to the northwest.

Farther south, the tidegates will be removed and that opening will be closed off. Southeast of there, 260 feet of the existing dike along Ebey Slough will be breached and the top of another 1,500 feet of the dike will be skimmed off.

Crews already have been working for several years to reroute Allen and Jones creeks so they will empty through the breach. At high tide, saltwater from Possession Sound will run in, mixing with the fresh.

Native plants have been placed around the edges of the property and berms also have been built strategically throughout the area.

Marysville plans to eventually install trails and viewpoints along the top of the new dike and at other locations around the property.

In addition to benefiting fish, restoring the marsh will provide a new home for birds and native plants.

About 18 percent of the original 10,000 acres of wetlands in the entire Snohomish delta remains, according to Nelson.

Snohomish County plans to restore 300 acres of Smith Island to its natural state. An environmental study has been completed for that $18 million project but permits have yet to be issued.

Farming groups have raised objections to that plan, citing the loss of potential agricultural land.

A 10-year Snohomish River Delta salmon restoration plan -- developed shortly after the Puget Sound chinook salmon was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2005 -- calls for 1,200 acres of estuary to be restored.

The largest estuary-restoration project in the region is the 750-acre Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in south Puget Sound, completed in 2009.