Nisqually project helps reverse decades of decline

The Nisqually River Delta is where the action is when it comes to estuary restoration work in Puget Sound.

Just last month, the Nisqually tribe welcomed back the saltwater to a 100-acre expanse of pasture land that hadn't seen the tides flow in and out since it was diked for agricultural use more than 100 years ago.

On the other side of the river, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to pull back similar dikes to restore 700 acres of estuary in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

These large-scale dike removal projects are designed to restore some of the richest biological reserves in Puget Sound, places where the rivers meet the sea and hundreds of species of aquatic plants, invertebrates, fish and sea birds congregate to feed, seek refuge and energize the Puget Sound ecosystem.

It's estuary restoration work designed to reverse decades of habitat-altering losses that have added to what ails Puget Sound. About 70 percent of Puget Sound's major river estuaries have succumbed to population growth and development.

"We're taking the dikes and levees off the rivers in a smart way, giving them a chance to breathe," said Jim Kramer, co-director of the Puget Sound Partnership appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to craft a Puget Sound recovery plan. "And the Nisqually is leading the way."

The Nisqually projects are some of the most valuable estuary projects in Puget Sound, said Polly Hicks, restoration ecologist for NOAA Fisheries.

"We're learning a lot about how quickly the vegetation, salmon and other marine life are drawn back to the area," Hicks said.

Take out the dikes, and the salmon and other sea life start using the areas almost immediately, growing in number and diversity with the passing tides, said Jeanette Dorner, the tribe's salmon recovery program manager.

Nisqually Delta estuary restoration is at the heart of the recovery plan for Puget Sound chinook salmon in the Nisqually River, she said. Studies suggest the estuary work could lead to a doubling of the number of naturally spawning salmon in the river.

In addition, the 30 acres of pasture land the tribe restored to estuarine condition in 2002 is playing host to chinook salmon from as far away as the White River in Pierce County and Oakland Bay in Mason County.

But the projects are about much more than salmon.

"It's an ecosystem-based restoration project," Dorner said. "It's not just for a single species."

The continuation of work this summer on the old Braget Farm purchased by the tribe in 1999 cost about $350,000. RG Forestry Consultant, a ­Hoodsport-based contractor, leveled about 9,000 feet of dike and decommissioned a road and former boat launch used by duck hunters. The company also did the 2002 project.

"Everybody's been amazed at how successful the project has been," said company employee Tom Schreiber.

Company owner Ron Gold said he has gladly made the transition from logging and road building to working on about 100 habitat restoration projects during the past 20 years.

"Instead of taking away, we're putting back," he said.

The Nisqually Delta is an ideal work environment because conservationists, the tribe and others fought to ward off plans for a major industrial port there 40 years ago, Dorner said. Most major river estuaries in Puget Sound are home to ports, industry and other intensive uses that make large-scale estuary restoration work very costly, if not impossible, she said.

The feasibility of restoring an estuary in an urban setting is the topic of a $1.1 million study that's looking at the pros and cons of pulling out the Capitol Lake dam in Olympia and allowing the Deschutes River to flow freely again into Budd Inlet. The study is scheduled for completion in 2008.

On Hood Canal, the Skokomish Tribe has partnered with the city of Tacoma and the Mason Conservation District to remove dikes, access roads and tide gates at the old Nalley Farm in the Skokomish River Delta. The project, set to begin in the spring of 2007, would eventually recover about 300 acres of estuary.

In the Nisqually watershed, habitat restoration work goes hand in hand with efforts to preserve fish and wildlife habitat and water quality in the Nisqually River valley, Dorner said. For instance, the

Nisqually Land Trust has preserved 1,700 acres of critical habitat in the river basin, and about 70 percent of the river shoreline is protected.

"You need to protect the good habitat so you're not sliding backwards while you restore habitat, too," Dorner said.