By Laura Ferguson, Ecosystem Recovery Coordinator
One seemingly straightforward habitat restoration project may take five years or more to finish.
Take Leque Island, for example. The Leque Island estuary restoration project restored estuarine channels, tidal processes, and salt marsh to the 250-acre interior of Leque Island, which lies at the mouth of the Stillaguamish River. After nine years of planning, designing, studying, and pushing forward, followed by one year of construction, the once-diked and dry area is now an inundated estuary and salt marsh for the benefit of juvenile salmon and other fish from the river. A group can walk the path to where the dike used to be, and when the tide is high, the effect is stunning. A visitor to the site today may have no idea that the path used to be a road, that the tidal marshland was much drier, and that the shoreline before her was restored by the hard work of partners and volunteers over many years.
We have a responsibility to share the importance of these projects — and how they are accomplished — with our neighbors and elected officials in a more succinct way and over a much shorter period of time. But how can you tangibly communicate the phases of a restoration project in just one day, and build community partnerships along the way?
The Island County Department of Natural Resources designed a restoration tour for County Commissioners and citizens to witness a habitat restoration project through all of its phases by visiting several projects at different phases of implementation. I was fortunate enough to tag along.
The day began at Livingston Bay on the north end of Camano Island, at a site where one project is beginning to form. While the cold December wind whipped in off the bay, staff from Island County Department of Natural Resources and Island County Public Works, County Commissioners, Whidbey Camano Land Trust, Snohomish Conservation District, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), Livingston Bay Association, and Livingston Bay farmers gathered at a school bus turnaround to talk about the many multi-benefit restoration possibilities.
The Livingston Bay project has several elements of shared interest for these groups. Water from a potential wetland on one side of a road flows into a failing county culvert and passes under the road into a privately owned outflow pipe. From there, the water shoots into the beach, where it scours the sediment and compromises habitat for young fish. At this very early phase, neighbors and public works employees want to work together to seek solutions to the failing culvert, and salmon proponents are hopeful this potential site will develop into a great recovery project in the future.
The next stop on the tour was the Oak Harbor Marina on Whidbey Island. Here the tour attendees were joined by partners from the Northwest Straits Foundation, Bluecoast Engineers, Oak Harbor Marina, WDFW, and the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island. The Oak Harbor Marina project will restore nearshore ecosystem processes, and the feasibility study phase of the project is almost complete. The project has many facets, including removing shoreline armoring, improving pedestrian beach access, decreasing toxics in the water by utilizing natural stormwater management and filtration techniques, raising the incline of a boat ramp, and decreasing overwater shading by removing covered boat docks.
In such a visible and well-visited place, this project has great potential to raise awareness of the importance of habitat restoration among the public. The Oak Harbor Marina project’s feasibility study may lay the groundwork for three Near Term Actions included as part of the 2018–2022 Action Agenda. The study is funded by Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration funding and the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program and will provide alternative options for action. This project is managed by Island County Department of Natural Resources, in collaboration with the Island County Marine Resources Committee and the City of Oak Harbor. It is a great example of a project in the middle of the work, with all involved identifying alternatives and determining the best way forward. At this point in the tour, we saw more clearly how a project begins to take shape.
Our last stop on the tour was the Sunlight Shores bulkhead removal project at the southern end of Whidbey Island. Three Sunlight Shores community members greeted us at the site and welcomed us into the community clubhouse where we learned about the project. Sponsored by the Northwest Straits Foundation, in partnership with the Island County Marine Resources Committee and the Sunlight Shores Community, this project is coming to its close. In 2018, workers removed various types of shoreline armor, including creosote pilings, from a 3,600 square foot area of community-owned shoreline. In the spring of 2019, volunteers planted 1,500 dune grass plants and other native plant species along the shoreline. Community members diligently tended to the plants throughout the hot summer, and when our group was there in December, the nine month-old plants looked like they’d had five years of hearty growth! Neighbors who hosted the tour shared that they loved their new beach, walking it often and easily launching kayaks from the armor-free shores.
We witnessed the importance of community support in bringing a project to successful completion. Without constant tending, the newly planted species would not have thrived — and the community is not done yet. As we wrapped up the day, the neighbors told us of their future plans to remove invasive plant species that could compromise native plants further up the beach. This one community project seed is growing into continued stewardship.
As a fairly new transplant to Puget Sound myself, I have not been here long enough to see a restoration project from beginning to end. By visiting each of these sites and hearing about their restoration progress, I have a much clearer vision of the necessary restoration steps, the timeline involved, and the clear importance of community involvement for project success.
Congratulations to Island County, all of the project partners, and dedicated community members for these projects in all of their phases. And congratulations to the County for assembling this tour to tell the story of a restoration project from start to finish.
The sun was sinking low over the water as the tour wrapped up. The winter air had warmed and the beach was now a pleasant place to be. I tried to imagine it with the armor and the creosote pilings in the “before” picture; I simply couldn’t. All the work of partners and volunteers, so wonderfully demonstrated throughout the day, was hidden in the processes of the restored shoreline before me — as well-done restoration should be.