A healing process is underway where Mission Creek flows into Budd Inlet at the southern-most end of the city of Olympia’s 314-acre Priest Point Park.
An old city right-of-way road, earthen berm and concrete culvert that kept the tide and stream from interacting naturally for as many as 100 years will soon be gone.
In its place will be a new stream channel that will allow salmon and cutthroat trout to more easily traverse the 1.5-mile-long stream that flows from northeast Olympia into South Sound.
The removal of the road fill and concrete at the mouth of the stream also will allow a 0.75-acre estuary to evolve over time, more closely resembling what the shoreline was like in the pre-development age.
Estuaries, places where rivers meet the sea, are productive rearing and feeding grounds for salmon and other species. But 80 percent of the historic estuaries in Puget Sound have been lost to growth and development, said Michelle Stevie, a senior water resource specialist with the city.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities like this,” noted Lance Winecka, project manager and executive director of the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group as he offered a tour of the site, which features views of lower Budd Inlet, the Port of Olympia and the state Capitol.
The $200,000 project has two funding sources: The port allotted $120,000 as part of a July 2011 out-of-court settlement with Olympians for Public Accountability, a citizens watchdog group that tangled with the port over alleged mismanagement of stormwater at the port’s marine terminal. The other $80,000 comes from the state’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board.
Restoring Mission Creek has been a priority for years, Winecka said.
“This project alone isn’t going to save the salmon,” Winecka said. “But a lot of pocket estuaries are beyond repair — this is one we could work with.”
Construction began last week and should be completed by Sept. 30. It’s a messy, muddy job reshaping the stream channel, decommissioning the road and pulling some 400 cubic yards of road fill and rubble from what once was beach and salt marsh.
“Habitat restoration — it’s like a bomb going off,” Winecka said about the disruption in the name of repair.
Watching over the project Wednesday was Rhonda Foster, cultural resource manager for the Squaxin Island Tribe. She was filling in for project archaeologist Maurice Major, who is assigned the task of chronicling any artifacts uncovered during the excavation.
The mouth of Mission Creek and other Budd Inlet locales were gathering places for tribal people, Foster said.
The land near the creek was also home to a Jesuit missionary who came to the area in 1848 to minister to nearby tribes and to school Indian boys. Neighboring tribes, including the Nisqually, Puyallup and Snoqualmie, used the mission as a trading center, too.
Foster said she has talked to tribal elders who recall the missionary site as a type of concentration camp, a place where Squaxin Island tribal members were rounded up, then dispersed to South Sound islands.
Foster said the project represents a form of healing that is important to the Squaxin Island Tribe — not to mention the value of the project as habitat for salmon.
“I’ve been seeing coho and chum salmon jumping out on the inlet, right in front of the creek,” Foster said, suggesting that salmon will return to the stream to spawn when the project is completed.
Mission Creek is fed by wetlands and springs in a watershed that encompasses some 359 acres that are only about 20 percent urbanized.
There’s always the possibility that tribal, missionary or early settler artifacts could be discovered in the next few days as the fill is removed and the original beach elevation is exposed.
“We did some screening out here in the spring and didn’t find anything, so we’re pretty mellow about the project,” Foster said.
There has been one unusual discovery so far: a big piece of carved sandstone that might have been part of a historic fountain, Major said. An inscription on the block suggests the sandstone was from the Hercules Quarry in Tenino.
Major said that the road that loops across the creek heads uphill to the former location of a Swiss Chalet that stood in the park until the 1950s, and had been part of the Olympia Brewing Co. pavilion during the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Ore.
The stone base, which sits today in the garden at Priest Point Park, might have been part of the decorative landscaping outside the chalet.
“Priest Point Park has a lot of history,” Foster said. “This area means a lot to a lot of people.”
It’s about to have a little bit of its natural history restored.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org