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News / Northwest

Washington could get millions in federal salmon recovery dollars

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2023, 7:29am

More than $60 million in federal grants could soon be on the way to help Washington’s rivers, endangered salmon and native eelgrass.

The Climate-Ready Coasts initiative grants recommended by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday are intended to help restore habitat for young salmon, heal floodplains from past mining and other human activities, and create salmon recovery internships at a community college, among other things.

The money was secured under the Biden-Harris Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, and will benefit the Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, as well as several nonprofits and state and local agencies.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will receive the most, with $12.1 million to roll out seven restoration projects aimed at Chinook salmon recovery totaling 1,200 acres in South Whidbey Basin, and another $11.6 million for north basin projects.

Whidbey Basin comprises the Stillaguamish, Snohomish and Skagit watersheds — Puget Sound’s biggest salmon-bearing rivers, where the bulk of the region’s remaining tidal wetlands exist. The state will work with the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes on projects in the north basin.

Just in the past few decades, six pocket estuary sites have been restored near Swinomish, increasing the estimated Chinook smolt production by about 48,000. But there’s still a real estuary capacity issue in the Skagit River basin.

Estuaries are like nurseries for young salmon. They rely on these places where the salt and freshwater mix to fatten them up without as high of a risk of predation before heading to the ocean. Without available estuarine habitat, young fish may plunge into the saltwater before they’re ready, reducing their chances of survival.

Over the years, about 85% of the “vital estuary habitat” in the Snohomish River delta was disconnected, primarily for agriculture. That accounts for the potential loss of up to 1.6 million Chinook smolt annually, according to a 2020 report by the Northwest Treaty Tribes.

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Meanwhile, Edmonds College is getting more than $800,000 to launch a bilingual salmon habitat restoration internship program. Students would get hands-on experience in the Stillaguamish and Snohomish watersheds.

And help is coming to preserve and restore a massive tidal marsh at Padilla Bay, to the tune of $2.3 million. The goal is to restore 105 acres.

On behalf of the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the Skagit River System Cooperative has been piecing back together critical salmon habitat within the tribes’ usual and accustomed fishing areas. They will get about $650,000 for tribal members to lead several projects in the Skagit River watershed aimed at Chinook recovery.

Millions will also go to the Lummi and Nooksack tribes to lead several projects in the South Fork Nooksack River that will include addressing flood risk in the town of Acme and low seasonal streamflows.

A new report prepared for the state Department of Ecology suggests climate change will continue to alter Washington’s rivers, potentially making some watersheds uninhabitable for salmon and steelhead by the end of the century.

The report led by Washington State University researcher Jonathan Yoder and University of Washington researcher Crystal Raymond projects widespread increases in river flows in the winter, declines in the summer and rising stream temperatures.

Complex habitat can help store water during low seasonal flows and build aquatic species’ resilience to climate change.

Washington state has already spent millions in attempt to contain the European green crab, a harmful invasive species that threatens native shellfish, eelgrass and estuary habitat that is important for salmon. But they persist.

Lummi Nation will get $868,000 to study the risk green crabs pose to native eelgrass beds and other natural resources on Lummi tidelands.

Across the Salish Sea, the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group will receive $9.6 million to reconnect flood plain that had previously been channeled and dredged in the Lower Big Quilcene River and estuary.

The project is designed to reconnect the river to its entire 140-acre flood plain, opening up healthier spawning and rearing habitat for threatened Hood Canal summer chum, and other salmon and steelhead. It could also help reduce flood risks in the basin by allowing the river to flow widely, rather than channeling the energy downstream.

In the Columbia Basin, the Lower Columbia Partnership was awarded $7.5 million to rescue three miles along the lower East Fork Lewis River from gravel mining and residential development. The project will include restoring mined flood plain, ripping out levees and restoring instream habitat. The river has been identified as a critical watershed for recovery for Lower Columbia River Chinook salmon.

Upward of $300,000 will go toward cleaning up and collecting data on marine debris along the coast.

Hundreds of thousands were also awarded for the Nisqually Tribe to provide guidance on the Interstate 5 redesign planning process in the Nisqually River Delta, as well as for the Washington State Department of Transportation to restore the Graveyard Spit, on the north shore of Willapa Bay.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. announced the grants Friday.