Skagit delta restoration project will help wildlife

A groundbreaking celebration Tuesday will begin a two-year construction project in the Skagit River delta to support salmon recovery, protect farmland and improve access to a popular birding destination.

The largest river to drain into Puget Sound, the Skagit has lost more than 70 percent its historic tidal marsh habitat since the 1800s. The $16.4 million restoration project will replace the existing dike with a 5,800-foot dike, set back from the current shoreline by about 5,500 feet, said Jenna Friebel, project manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The work will take place in the Fir Island Farm Reserve unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area.

Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony comes after six years of discussions, planning and development between area landowners and state, federal, tribal and local agencies.

When completed, 131 acres of tidal marsh habitat will be restored for migrating juvenile chinook salmon. The project also includes protections designed to reduce flooding, maintain drainage and prevent saltwater from damaging nearby farmland, Friebel said.

The project will also preserve 100 acres of protected bird forage habitat and improve public access for people viewing snow geese, shorebirds and other waterfowl, according to a department news release.

The habitat restoration will support about 65,000 salmon per year, said Kaleen Cottingham, director of the state Recreation and Conservation Office. That agency administers awards from four grant programs for the project.

“Marshes serve as a resting place for salmon as they transition from freshwater to saltwater, so the project will help young salmon at critical stages of their migration,” she said in the release.

The fish and wildlife agency’s goal for this summer is to build the new setback dike, Friebel said, the first step in restoring the tidal marsh. In 2016, crews will remove the old dike and allow the tides to establish a new shoreline.

Public access to the project site was closed earlier this month, when marsh restoration work began. The Fir Island birding area, purchased 20 years ago by the department as a snow-goose reserve, will be closed until early October and from mid-May until mid-October next year. That will allow bird watchers to see snow geese return to the area in the fall.