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Restoring a Freshwater Marsh: Finding a Common Ground between Farmers and Fish

October 11, 2011

The crops didn’t fare well, but farmers and an expected 16,000 Chinook salmon have found common ground by restoring marsh habitat along Fisher Slough in Washington State. The fertile farmland near Skagit River Delta was in demand.

At first, farmers were under pressure to convert their farmland into residential communities. More recently, concerns about declining salmon populations and the listing of several endangered species changed the focus to converting the farmland back to fish habitat. This led to ongoing conflict between farmers and the environmental community.

But in 2004, Richard Smith—a local farmer—approached The Nature Conservancy with a proposal: if they would design a project that would benefit farmers and fish, he could provide the land. With Recovery Act funding from NOAA, The Nature Conservancy was able to do just that.

Farmers Release Land to Protect Fish

Diking and drainage systems, originally built in the early 1900s to create farmland, are supposed to keep tidal water and flood flows from communities and agricultural fields. However, winter and springtime flooding is a persistent problem for farmers and residents around Fisher Slough.

Aging infrastructure and development in the upper watershed has made the diking and drainage system less efficient. It can only protect these areas from minor floods; larger floods levels still impact the community. It also requires ongoing and costly maintenance. At the same time, the diking structures restrict salmon habitat and undermine the recovery of threatened Chinook salmon and other salmon species.

The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with NOAA, has been working closely with area farmers and using local contractors.  We replaced antiquated floodgates with a newer model that maximizes tidal flow and fish passage. We are also setting back the south levee on Fisher Slough, allowing tidal flow to return to 60 acres of freshwater marsh habitat. The water will flow into a former agricultural field—the land Richard Smith sold for conservation. The field will eventually return to its natural state as a marsh, providing habitat for salmon. By increasing the marsh area on Fisher Slough, we are also increasing flood protection—the marsh acts as a storage container for floodwaters.

Restoration Leads to Results

This project benefits the local agricultural community by reducing the risk of flood-damage and drainage maintenance costs while at the same time restoring critical habitat for salmon listed on the Endangered Species Act-. An additional 16,000 young Chinook salmon are expected to migrate out through Fisher Slough to the Skagit and into Puget Sound every year as a result of this project.