The Skagit River Valley is home to farmland that brings us everything from tulips to potatoes and berries. But the river that makes such rich soil possible is also home to all five native species of Pacific salmon – including threatened Chinook.
Efforts to restore fish habitat have sparked bitter battles in the past. Now, hopes are high as work wraps up on a project in the Skagit River Delta that has support from advocates for fish and farmers alike.
Less than a mile west of I-5, on what was once farmland South of Mount Vernon, a small creek has started reclaiming a more natural path as it flows toward Puget Sound.
Restored tidal marsh
The Nature Conservancy is just finishing up a seven-year pilot project that will permanently convert 60 acres back into freshwater tidal marsh that’s prime habitat for fish. Kris Knight has helped manage the project, called Fisher Slough.
“Once we open the flood gates and restore the fish passage, there’ll be salmon coming up Big Fisher Creek to spawn. There’s chum, there’s coho, there’s pink salmon and then of course the Chinook salmon will also be using Fisher Slough, not to spawn, but to use as rearing habitat, to grow, to get bigger and stronger before they head out to the saltwater,” Knight says.
Fisheries biologists expect the new habitat to be used by an additional 16,000 of the endangered juvenile Chinook each year.
But Knight says this is a different kind of conservation– because they’re working on top of a century-old system of agricultural plumbing. And they’re not just tearing it all out – they’re making it work better for the surrounding farmland that still remains.
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Rerouting Big Fisher Creek
“Big Fisher Creek used to continue on in a straight line. It was like a fire hose that flowed right into one of the existing levies. And so every few years the dike district would have to come out and repair that levy and there would be a cost associated with that,” Knight says.
They hope that’s fixed now with the rerouting of Big Fisher back into a more natural channel. They’ve also replaced a 1930s culvert system with better drainage infrastructure and put in new levies for better flood protection.
“I’m always amazed, walking up here and seeing what’s happened, after seven years and actually seeing the dikes back up, it’s really gratifying," says Kevin Morse, the Nature Conservancy’s North Puget Sound Director
'Embrace the conflict'
In addition to his work with the Nature Conservancy, Morse is also part of the local community. He has a small pig farm in La Conner. Standing on top of one of the 19-foot-tall levies that’s creating new habitat for fish on what was once farmland, he says this project has been anything but easy.
"What we’ve done is embrace the conflict here,” he said.
Fisher Slough is the first estuary conversion project to take place on privately-owned land. A local potato farmer sold the land here – almost as a dare – to see if groups such as the Nature Conservancy could implement a project that would benefit not just the fish, but also the farmers.
But it’s only 60 acres – and the recovery plan to bring Chinook salmon back from the brink of extinction targets nearly 3,000 acres for estuary restoration.
“The reality is a large portion of that will have to happen on private land. So we have a huge amount of science, wonderful science that the tribes have done, the state and the federal agencies, saying where and why we need to do restoration. What we're trying to unlock here is the how," Morse says.
It's tough - because most farmers don’t want to give up their land.
One farmer not convinced
Just a few miles west of Fisher Slough, the potato harvest is underway. Farmer Darrin Morrison is working the land with a modern tractor setup, but says the roots of his way of life are old fashioned.
“I’ve always been a farmer. I’m 4th generation on the farm, I follow my Dad and my grandfather and my great grandfather. Our farm’s over a hundred years old."
Morrison is not convinced that converting fields into fish habitat is a good idea.
“We need the land. Farmland in this valley is a really tight commodity, it’s held tightly. They’re not making any more of it. And we’re using just about every square inch we own.”
He says he wants to see results from Fisher Slough before even five acres more of private farmland are converted. And yet, with all the benefits it’s bringing to the flood district, he’s come to think this one project is probably okay.
Another unlikely ally is Allen Rozema, Executive Director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland. He looks out past the land that was once a potato field and will soon become marshland and mudflats for fish.
“It’s emotional. Because this represents, the farmland represents literally centuries of work and centuries of growing food. But we recognize it came at a cost in this are with the loss of some salmon habitat,” he says.
Despite this recognition, he says in just the past five years, farmers working on public lands have ceded more than a thousand acres to estuary conversion. And his group has been fighting to protect farmland from development. So, as part of this project, they demanded and won protection for farmland right next to Fisher Slough.
“Just to the other side of us is 32 acres that this project was able to protect – permanently protect from development through a conservation easement,” Rozema says.
It’s all part of a process that has emphasized multiple goals. Kevin Morse, with the Nature Conservancy, says the partnerships they’ve developed here are kind of like jazz.
“You know the science that got us here is precise and incremental. But making this is more like jazz because you have to adapt and move and when that one note’s played, you gotta respond with another. And you can’t write specific instructions or a recipe for it. But you just have to have the trust and the relationships to work through whatever gets thrown at you.”
Morse says after the tide gates open at Fisher Slough, the success of this pilot project won’t just be measured by whether years from now the fish counts go up, but also by whether next year, farmers are still at the table talking about what to do next to help save endangered Chinook.