Balancing fish and farms on a Washington estuary

  • A tidal marsh habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species.

    Polly Hicks, NOAA
  • The restored Fisher Slough, which by late November was providing freshwater tidal marsh habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species.

    Polly Hicks, NOAA
  • The original infrastructure, built in 1927, had floodgates that were closed much of the time.

    The Nature Conservancy
  • The Fisher Slough project and farmland near Skagit Bay.

    NOAA, Google Earth
  • Floodgates will stay open for 90 percent of the tidal cycle, providing freshwater tidal marsh habitat for fish, waterfowl and other, waterfowl and other species.

    The Nature Conservancy

In late summer last year, a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in northwest Washington to witness the rebirth of a waterway -- the result of years of negotiation, compromise and patience. Those present heard about the project's importance, not only for Pacific salmon, but also for the local community's livelihood.

It sounds a lot like the breaching of the century-old Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula last fall. But this little group was about 100 miles away, near the town of Mount Vernon, at a place called Fisher Slough in the Skagit River Delta. What they were celebrating was less dramatic in appearance than the Elwha, but it was also biologically significant, and just as thorny politically.

As environmental battlefields go, Fisher Slough seems pretty meek, with a copse of alders in the midst of a small, shallow lake, bracketed on one side by road, on the others by fields. But since Euro-Americans settled the delta in the mid-1800s, Fisher, like most of the sloughs, has been drained and plumbed with levees, ditches and tidegates, creating some of the most productive farmland in the country: More than 100,000 acres are farmed by over 1,200 operations in the Skagit Valley.

The Skagit River is also one of the state's major salmon producers, the last to support wild populations of all five species of Pacific salmon, one of which -- the Puget Sound chinook -- was federally listed as threatened in 1999. The subsequent species recovery plan, released in 2005, identified estuaries like Fisher Slough as critical habitat.

Unlike in other parts of the Skagit River Delta, where conservationists have squabbled with farmers over salmon restoration, the work at Fisher Slough has tried to benefit both groups. By helping farmers reduce flood risk, among other things, the project has won their grudging support, and thus serves as a model for other projects seeking to resolve conservation vs. agriculture stalemates. "In a lot of ways, it looks modest," says Bob Carey, project director with The Nature Conservancy's office in Mount Vernon, "but we think it will have far-reaching effects."

Salmon are famously itinerant, swimming from the river to the sea to grow, and returning to the river to spawn. Threats to them are couched principally as impediments to movement: hooks, nets, and dams. But salmon also spend important periods of their life relatively stationary. During the fry stage, they travel downstream to estuaries. Depending on the species, they might spend weeks or months preparing physiologically for years in saltwater. The change, called smoltification, is costly: As fry become smolts, they are sluggish, vulnerable to predators. They need shelter, usually in the form of woody debris. Healthy estuaries provide this. "As we have learned more about what fish need, and salmon in particular, it's become increasingly clear just how important estuaries are," says Charles Simenstad, a restoration ecologist at the University of Washington.

When the chinook was federally listed, longstanding regional tensions between Coast Salish fishermen and farmers bubbled to the surface. Tribes, frustrated at the salmon decline, demanded that farmers begin substantive restoration work on estuary lands used for agriculture. But to restore an estuary can require dismantling not only durable physical structures, but also social ones, some of which are even more deep-rooted. Many of the farms in the Skagit Valley are over 100 years old. (Invocations of their age tend not to impress the tribes, it should be noted.) Even as farmland acreage in Skagit County has declined by almost 25 percent since 1930, agricultural interests remain a potent force in local politics, and farmers rejected any a priori assumptions that they were to blame for the salmon's decline. The delta had been diked for over a century, but the salmon didn't start to disappear until the 1930s. Yes, habitat loss (and by extension farms) bore some of the blame -- but so did logging, the dams, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and global warming.

Lawsuits piled up. Both sides dug in, as often happens when two ways of life square off against one another. "Conflict over habitat restoration isn't a new thing here," says Steve Hinton, the restoration director for the tribal Skagit River Systems Cooperative, or Skagit Co-op. "But the listing really kicked it up a notch."

Back in 2004, Hinton heard that Richard Smith had some rather unusual ideas for a farmer in the delta. Smith, who was also the commissioner for a dike district, was troubled by flooding in his district, and thought perhaps setting back some of the levees would allow greater flood storage. Coincidentally, this might also help restore part of the slough, which would be a boon for salmon.

Hinton had worked in the Skagit Delta with the Skagit Co-op for years. In all that time, he had never -- never -- known a farmer to offer up an inch of farmland for wetland restoration. Smith eventually made it known that he was willing to sell 60 acres of Fisher Slough. His offer was more dare than detente. The slough was cross-stitched with dikes and drainage ditches. "What with all the infrastructure, Fisher Slough is a really complicated site to try to restore," Hinton says. "It was like he was saying, 'You claim that such-and-such techniques will help save the salmon. Show us.' "

The Nature Conservancy, aware of Smith's intentions, knew the proposal wouldn't be popular. "The political atmosphere then was pretty intense," Carey recalls. "Smith caught a lot of flak from the farming community. Even one of his sons was against it."

Through an intermediary on the board of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, a farming advocacy group, Smith approached Carey and The Nature Conservancy and asked that they oversee the restoration of Fisher Slough. "In part," says Kevin Morse, North Puget Sound program director for The Nature Conservancy, "he wanted to work with us because we didn't litigate."

Morse felt that, for the farmers to support a project (and thus help change local attitudes towards habitat restoration), they would need to see some material benefit. "Most restoration work here has focused only on salmon," he says. "There's such a history in the Skagit of mistrust that we knew it was vital to design something that could satisfy more than one community." He invited local dike and drainage commissioners to examine plans as they were developed, rather than have outcomes dictated to them. That went a long way toward engendering good will. "We could have had some real conflicts with them if we had not seen any benefit for our district," says Keith Morrison, a farmer and one of the drainage commissioners. "We could have said no. But we felt it was worth cooperating."

Rebuilding an estuary is a complex business. Starting in 2009 with $5.2 million in federal stimulus dollars, as well as additional millions in private donations and other funds, the project reconfigured dikes and rerouted ditches. Workers dug out the slough's original channels, and replaced a box culvert from the 1930s, which had been a major fish passage barrier. Water now leaves the slough through state-of-the-art floodgates. Rather than close for 60 percent of a tidal cycle, the gates stay open for 90 percent of it, allowing more reliable transit for salmon. Morse estimates that the rehabilitated slough will add an additional 16,000 juvenile chinook to the annual migration into Puget Sound.

For farmers, the restored slough means better protection for their land in the form of flood storage. Also, as part of a separate agreement with state agencies, they receive conservation easements on some farmland, and permitting processes to replace old tidegates were streamlined, in some cases eliminating the need for biological opinions on a case-by-case basis. Given these incentives, attitudes towards salmon restoration seem to have softened. "We don't want to give up any farmland," says Mike Shelby, executive director of the Western Washington Agricultural Association. "We got a major fish project on a relatively small agricultural footprint, and that's something we could get behind." State biologists hope that the goodwill carries over to future projects, such as one at nearby Fir Island, where the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife hopes to restore 130 acres of slough on state land, taking some leased farmland out of production but potentially contributing 65,000 juvenile chinook salmon to Puget Sound.

Whether the salmon will do as well as the farmers have remains the key question. A recent report prepared jointly by the Skagit Co-op and federal agencies found that, after a year, the number of chinook returning to Fisher Slough has actually declined. It may be several years before the full effects of the project are clear, but restoration ecologists have generally been more guarded than farmers in their praise of Fisher Slough. " 'Fish-friendly floodgates' is an oxymoron," Simenstad says. "All they do is let fish go into bad habitat. So we have to ask ourselves if the social benefits of boutique restoration make it worth our while to keep investing in marginal trade-offs." After all, 16,000 additional juveniles heading out to sea is different than 16,000 adults returning to spawn. Even going by that looser metric, the federal Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan, implemented last January, aims for salmon runs in the watershed to produce an additional 1.35 million smolts within the next 30 years. To achieve that, at least 3,000 acres of the delta will need to be restored, mostly on private land.

"Certainly you can point to projects that have done more with less," Simenstad says. He ticks them off: 100 or so miles south on I-5, there is the Nisqually River delta, where in 2009, a federal and tribal partnership removed hundred-year-old dikes, inundating almost 400 acres of wetland. Another: the Salmon River in Oregon, a few miles north of Lincoln City, which was once 82 percent diked. Those dikes were removed successively, starting in the early 1970s; the last was in 1996. It took a while, but wild coho runs returned.

Although he is critical of Fisher Slough ("I'm not beholden to anyone, so I don't have to be nice"), Simenstad acknowledges that the changes it brought to the political ecology of the Skagit might be just as important as changes to the natural ecology, however small. "In restoration, there are different types of value," he says. "With salmon, you can never expect instant gratification."

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