10 years of partnership: Working together to help salmon and people

Fir Island Farm Estuary Restoration Project

Located within the Fir Island Farm Reserve

After 10 years of collaboration, we are excited to celebrate an important milestone for the Fir Island Farm Estuary Restoration Project. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) recently transitioned ownership and operations of the project’s infrastructure to our partners at the Skagit County Consolidated Dike, Drainage, and Irrigation Improvement District #22 (District).

The infrastructure consists of 5,800 feet of marine dike, tide gates, a 7-acre drainage storage pond, and a pump station.

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View of restored estuary at Fir Island Farm Reserve

10 years of partnership

For the last 10 years, the District and WDFW have worked closely together to make the Fir Island Farm Estuary Restoration Project a success in providing neighboring farms, homes, and roads with reliable drainage and protection from tides, storm surge, and effects of climate change.

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As subject matter experts on drainage and flood protection, the District provided critical information on design criteria and operations requirements for the project’s infrastructure. WDFW staff worked with District commissioners throughout the project to incorporate their input.

The department extends our sincere appreciation to the District for their willingness to share knowledge and expertise, and work with us towards a common goal.

Chinook salmon recovery in the Skagit

The Skagit River System Cooperative (a tribal cooperative) and WDFW collaboratively authored the Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan, which identifies Skagit estuary habitat as a bottleneck to salmon recovery and calls for approximately 2,700 acres of estuary restoration.

The Fir Island Farm Reserve was identified as an important area to restore habitat for salmon because it was historically part of the estuary, which provided critical rearing habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon.

131 acres of tidal marsh restored

The Fir Island Farm Reserve is tucked between the north and south forks of the Skagit River at the edge of a vast agricultural landscape. Freshwater from the Skagit River and saltwater from Puget Sound come together and form channels that meander through mudflats and marsh. Until 2016, the entire Reserve was managed agricultural fields that were diked and drained.

Project construction was completed in 2016, which restored 131 acres of estuary habitat to benefit salmon, maintained flood protection and drainage for neighbors, and provided public access to a unique ecological area.

Watch the video below to see the first tide in 100 years come back onto the site in 2016.

Now, the restored marsh provides seeds, shoots, bugs, and worms that feed juvenile salmon, forage fish, waterfowl, and shorebirds, which in turn provide food for endangered southern resident killer whales, provide recreational opportunities and food for people, and support tribal culture.

See a bird’s eye view of restored estuary at the Fir Island Farm Reserve in the video below.

Being a good neighbor

The Skagit River delta is home to rich soils and a thriving agricultural landscape where farms produce over 80 commercial crops. These crops rely on drainage and flood protection. Estuary restoration often requires moving infrastructure (setting back dikes, for example), which can impact agricultural drainage.

To off-set this impact and be a responsible partner with the farming community, the project included construction of a pump station, drainage storage pond, and tidegates to maintain drainage for neighboring farms. In addition, the setback dike was designed to account for future coastal flooding and the impacts of sea level rise.

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New pump station and outlet at the Fir Island Farm estuary restoration site in Skagit County.

Monitoring the effects

A monitoring and adaptive management plan outlined ecological, drainage, and flood protection measures the project needed to meet.

Drainage and flood protection
We monitored the height of the setback dike, and water height and salinity in neighboring farm fields. Monitoring data from 2016 through 2019 showed the infrastructure performs as expected.

Ecological
Monitoring data showed the site is supporting thousands of juvenile salmon, and invasive cattail plants are under control. We also learned that a hard soil layer underneath the site may cause a delay for channels to develop and native vegetation to take hold. This information is valuable so we can adaptively manage this site and apply lessons learned for future projects.

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Aerial photo 3 years post restoration.

Plan your visit

The Fir Island Farm Reserve attracts thousands of snow geese, swans, ducks, and shorebirds in the fall through early spring. Managed agricultural fields provide a winter feeding and resting area for snow geese and other waterfowl next to the Skagit Bay estuary.

A short trail along the dike offers stunning views of Skagit Bay and abundant opportunities for shorebird and waterfowl watching. Local birders have reported 80 distinct species at the Fir Island Farm Reserve this spring.

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The Fir Island Farms Reserve is a fantastic birding destination.

Written by

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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