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Qwuloolt Estuary Restoration: Nearly 20 Years in the Making

Estuaries Week Header 2015

by Jennifer Cole, Public Affairs Specialist

For nearly two decades, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has been working with partners and the Tulalip Tribes near Marysville, Wash to restore natural hydrology to the Qwuloolt Estuary. But in late August 2015, at sun up, this longstanding goal was finally achieved. 

According to the Tulalip Tribes, “the goal of the Qwuloolt Project is to restore the historic and natural processes of the river and tides, which will eventually provide for a functional estuarine wetland that connects to the broader Snohomish Estuary.”

NRCS’ involvement with the Qwuloolt Restoration Project dates all the way back to 1996, when the agency acquired an easement of 258 acres through the former Wetlands Reserve Program, now the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

Later, the Tulalip Tribes purchased the land and began the process of restoration planning, calling upon the support of many other partners, some of whom include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the City of Marysville, Puget Sound Partnership, and Washington Departments of Ecology and Fish & Wildlife.

NRCS’ on-the-ground work with the estuary began in 2005 when the agency provided financial and technical assistance for the removal of blackberry bushes, native tree planting, fence removal, ditch filling, and drain tile plugging on the easement.

Qwuloolt estuary interior work
The Qwuloolt estuary where the Snohomish River meets Puget Sound – interior microtopography work being completed before levee breaching.

Then, in 2013, NRCS funded interior restoration work to prepare for the Snohomish river levee for breaching by the US Army Corps of Engineers. This funding included habitat mounds and channel excavation, fish passage barrier removal, tide gate decommissioning and contributing to the construction of a setback levee to protect the City of Marysville’s waste water treatment plant.

The culmination of restoration work by NRCS and many other partners was the breaching of the levee along the Ebey Slough under the direction of the US Army Corps of Engineers on August 28, 2015. State Conservationist, Roylene Rides at the Door was among the special guests invited to the dedication and salmon bake which took place several days after the breaching of the levee.

“The breach of the levee was a critical moment in the history of this restoration project,” said State Conservationist, Roylene Rides at the Door, “I was honored to be a part of the culmination of a project NRCS and partners have been working towards for so long.”

Over the following days the breach area was slowly expanded by the contractor and by the natural tidal flows moving in and out of the newly re-activated estuary. The levee breach is restoring the land to the salt marsh it had been prior to the levees that were built over a century ago. The purpose of the original WRP easement has finally been achieved. Over time, mud flats, tidal channels, pools and connections to salmon spawning streams will form, and critical salmon population will be reintroduced to the area, naturally.

Qwuloolt estuary restored
The Qwuloolt estuary hydrology restored by breaching a century old levee. WRP easement land in the foreground.

NRCS has committed over $802,000 in financial assistance to the estuary restoration and hundreds of hours of technical assistance from NRCS biologists, foresters, engineers, technicians, and contracting and program specialists.

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits. Under the Wetlands Reserve Easements component, NRCS helps to restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands. To learn more about ACEP, or other NRCS programs, go to here or visit your local USDA Service Center.

NRCS is joining partners in celebrating National Estuary Week to promote conservation of private, agricultural lands for cleaner water flowing into estuaries, better overall health for fisheries and other wildlife, and sustainable production of food and fiber. To learn more about estuary restoration in Washington State, check out our Washington NRCS Estuary Restoration and Protection page.