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Environment

Nature rebounds on the Green River after large levee removal

A river with gravel beds, trees and green landscape in the distance.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
In King County near Auburn, Wash., the removal of the Lones Levee is returning the Green River to a more natural state that will help endangered Chinook salmon. The levee, one of several along the Green River, was built in 1959 in response to a major flood. The restoration project will also help manage increased flooding as the climate warms.

Members of the Muckleshoot Tribe joined officials from King County this week to celebrate completion of an important levee removal project east of Auburn, Wash.

The massive Lones Levee was built in 1959. Restoring this area to a more natural state will help save endangered Chinook salmon from extinction and also help manage increased flooding as the climate warms.

King County Executive Dow Constantine called the project completion - on budget and ahead of schedule – ‘exciting.’

“This is an example of how we bring together a lot of the different kinds of work we do: in flood protection, in promoting agriculture, and very importantly, in restoring our natural environment,” Constantine said.

“And do it with many partners - to produce better results for everyone.”

The site of the celebration was at the top of a new side channel of the Green River, next to a tree farm, one of several private properties abutting the project.

Christie True, Director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks, welcomed the Muckleshoot Tribe, which has treaty-protected fishing rights on the Green River.

We could not be successful at projects like this if we didn't have the support and expertise of the tribes in our region,” True said, acknowledging “the work that they do here, what their ancestors have done, what their future generations will do, protecting and restoring this land.”

Listen: Blessing song by Warren and Betty King George of the Muckleshoot Tribe

Muckleshoot elder and historian Warren King George and his wife, Betty, performed a blessing song, surrounded by a group of youth working under a grant from the No Child Left Inside Project. They performed a spoken word piece, in praise of the project. And King George explained the important tribal history of the place on the river where the levee was removed.

“We have an old village site here,“ he said, looking across toward the tree farm.

He explained that this place in the village is where the tribe’s traditional first-salmon ceremony would take place, in which they honorably return the remnants of the first salmon caught in a season, usually placing it on a raft of cedar branches, and giving it back to the waters from which it came.

“And so this is the location. This is one location on this river system where that salmon ceremony would have taken place years ago. Pre contact. Pre-treaty, thousands of years ago.”

Clear water ripples over a river bed.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
The Green River provides a natural habitat for five species of salmon.

The t-shaped Lones Levee structure was about a third of a mile long and wide enough to walk on. While it protected area homes and farms from flooding, it also blocked off natural migration and habitat for five species of salmon. The restoration work is geared toward the survival of the priority species here – Chinook, the largest of the Pacific salmon and the preferred prey of another priority endangered species, Southern Resident killer whales.

In 2021, heavy equipment began moving 25,000 cubic yards of rock and soil that had walled off the floodplain. Work crews combined the old gravel from which it was made with engineered log jams and new vegetation to create three side channels that now divert the water into shaded wetlands.

This provides much-needed habitat for juvenile salmon, who can rear here and double in size before heading out to the ocean.

A man in a black jacket and baseball cap gestures while giving a site tour.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Senior Ecologist Dan Eastman worked on the Lones Levee Setback and Floodplain Restoration Project for about 20 years, starting with figuring out how to acquire the land around the 0.3 mile long levee from all the owners.

After the ceremonies, Executive Constantine took a tour of the site with county staff, pausing for a moment on a spot overlooking a side channel where the levee once stood.

This was the levee,” said civil engineer Chris Ewing. “So if you look downstream, imagine just a 1700-foot-long arm, straight as an arrow mound of earth, that every time the river hit it, it just straightened out, he said.

“And nothing complex, nothing interesting for a fish,” Ewing said.

Senior Ecologist Dan Eastman worked on the project for about 20 years - which started with figuring out how to acquire the land around the Lones Levee from all the owners.

That hard barrier made all the species of fish here vulnerable to predators. With it gone, they have about 30 acres of shady wetlands where they can hide and feed and double in size before heading out to the ocean. The project used gravel from the old levee, giving it back to a wilder system.

So the river can grab it, can recruit it, can move it around, form these gravel bars like you're seeing here, and basically let the river decide what the river needs,” Eastman said.

It’s a model for at least three more levee removals the county plans to do along the Green River over the next decade.

King County will be monitoring the project for the next ten years to gauge its success.

The Muckleshoot Tribe helped re-name the area, after the old village site that once existed here. The new name is čakwab, pronounced “chock-wob,” meaning something carried to the water.