A glimpse into the proposed projects to restore Puget Sound shoreline and habitat in 2023 and beyond

Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program proposes 38 projects to advance Puget Sound recovery

A new preliminary investment plan released this fall by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) provides a unique forward-look into what could be possible for the future of Puget Sound habitat restoration.

The plan is part of the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, which is a grant program that provides funding and technical assistance to organizations working to restore shoreline and nearshore habitats that are important to salmon and other species in Puget Sound. A partnership between WDFW and RCO, the Program helps to create healthy habitat for fish, advance orca recovery efforts, mitigate climate change, and support living-wage jobs and regional tourism.

All about the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program.

Since its inception in 2006, the program has implemented 106 projects, created 937 jobs, protected and restored more than 4,500 acres of habitat, removed more than two miles of shoreline armor, and protected three miles of shoreline habitat. Many more projects are in the works advancing these outcomes across Puget Sound. ESRP has received and invested $78.2 million of state capital funds and nearly $10 million in direct federal funding into Puget Sound projects.

A WDFW video about ESRP.

The importance of estuaries and salmon restoration

The Puget Sound is made up of 2,500 miles of shoreline and numerous rivers, creating many opportunities for estuaries to form. Estuaries are bodies of water where the freshwater of rivers meets the saltwater of the ocean or Puget Sound, creating an environment that is a mixture of saltwater and freshwater. Throughout history, estuaries have been vitally important for Native American cultures, and they are home to more than two-thirds of Washington’s commercially important fish and shellfish. Many species either live their whole lives or depend upon estuaries for a variety of life-stages.

Estuaries are home to a variety of unique habitats, supporting many waterfowl, shorebirds, fish, and invertebrates for all or part of their life cycle. They also provide vital habitat for forage fish, which are crucial to the marine food web of Puget Sound, and are an important link for recovering Puget Sound salmon and Southern Resident killer whales. There are a number of threats to Washington’s estuaries — invasive species, development, and sea level rise are the three most significant.

Similarly, we know salmon populations are facing challenges as well. According to the 2020 State of Salmon Report, 14 species of salmon and steelhead are listed as at-risk of extinction under the Endangered Species Act. Salmon are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest economy, environment, outdoor recreation, and culture.

Map from Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs highlighting Chinook salmon population abundance in relation to recovery planning targets. Smaller percentages indicate populations that are further from meeting recovery targets.

WDFW is working alongside state, tribal and federal governments and other partners to advance salmon recovery and estuary habitat restoration — and ESRP is a part of that.

What makes up the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program:

ESRP is made up of four grant programs all woven together into a single biennial prioritized investment plan:

  • Restoration and protection, which focuses on investments in protecting and restoring the natural processes that create and sustain the environment along and near shorelines. The intent is to regain some of the ecosystem goods and services that have been lost as a result of more than a century of human development in the region.
  • Small grants, which focuses on engaging local communities and restoring and protecting beaches with awards available between $30,000 and $150,000. ESRP dedicates 5% of its biennial appropriation to this work.
  • Regional pre-design, which helps to inform future investments in construction and design. These projects direct future investments by investigating potential restoration outcomes at a regional and ecosystem scale to directly inform construction siting and design. The projects help us understand how we can improve the effectiveness of habitat restoration in Puget Sound. ESRP dedicates 10% of its biennial appropriation to this work.
  • Shore Friendly, which invests in local efforts to provide stewardship incentives to landowners to foster healthy shorelines. With the goals of reducing shoreline armoring, such as bulkheads and seawalls, and restoring shoreline habitat, the program engages private landowners and communities to encourage changes in how they manage their shorelines.
A video with more information about Shore Friendly.

RCO has a $25.5 million capital funding request into the Legislature this next session to help support the ESRP program and the proposed projects outlined in the preliminary investment plan. Including the alternate projects, which aren’t captured in the $25.5 million capital funding request, the preliminary investment plan outlines a $77 million investment in total.

Sample projects

Now that we’ve shared a little bit about what ESRP is, next let’s dive into some of the projects within the ESRP preliminary proposed project list, which includes 38 proposed projects — with an additional 21 alternate projects. Note: This project list is a result of a robust review process, which includes an evaluation from a technical review team made up of members from multiple agencies and organizations throughout Puget Sound.

North Puget Sound

Port Susan Bay Habitat Restoration: The Nature Conservancy

Image courtesy of RCO.

The Nature Conservancy is proposing to use ESRP funding to complete the second phase of construction of the Port Susan Bay Restoration for Resiliency project. This second phase will restore 115 acres of estuarine tidal marsh in the Stillaguamish Delta, expanding upon the 35 acres restored in the first phase. Increased estuary habitat will expand juvenile rearing capacity for several salmon species, including Endangered Species Act-listed Chinook. The project ensures that the value of upstream salmon recovery projects is not lost at the estuary due to a habitat bottleneck. It’s also part of an integrated effort by the Sustainable Lands Strategy to advance fish, flood, and farm benefits in the watershed.

The following project is just next door. Together, these two projects make up one larger interconnected restoration project.

zis a ba II Restoration and Construction: Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians

In this project, the Stillaguamish Tribe is proposing to restore habitat in 230 acres of tidal wetlands between Hatt Slough and the Old Stillaguamish River to help support young salmon, especially Chinook, which are a critical prey source for endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Other project elements include efforts to clear structures to further support habitat restoration, dike removal and setback, channel excavation and connection. Completing this project has the potential to bring the restored area of the Stillaguamish delta to over 700 acres. This is an important project for the Whidbey Basin, as tidal wetland restoration opportunities of this scale are rare.

Island Unit Final Design and Permits: WDFW

Image courtesy of RCO.

WDFW is proposing to complete final designs and permits to restore the Island Unit of the Skagit Wildlife Area. Island Unit is located on two mid-channel islands in the South Fork Skagit River within the Skagit River delta. The 270-acre site was historically diked and drained for farming and has been managed for waterfowl forage production and hunting by WDFW. In January 2021, WDFW explored alongside partners and stakeholders a path forward to restore the site to estuary. The goal of the project is to restore natural processes that create and maintain fish and wildlife habitat, while limiting negative impacts to infrastructure on nearby properties and supporting access to the outdoors.

Central Puget Sound

Carpenter Creek Estuary Protection: Great Peninsula Conservancy

In this proposed project, the Great Peninsula Conservancy will buy and protect 50 acres of Carpenter Creek estuary. Bordering Kingston, Kitsap County, the estuary is one of the few remaining high-functioning, undeveloped bays in Central Puget Sound and strategically important for multiple out-migrating salmon species, including Endangered Species Act-listed Chinook. With two large tidal flow restoration projects completed in the estuary and room for estuary migration with sea level rise, the project is highly resilient. The project represents a unique opportunity to protect a rare, intact estuary in central Puget Sound.

South Puget Sound

Still Harbor Restoration Phase Two: Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR)

Still Harbor, located on the northeast side of McNeil Island offers 1.5 miles of shoreline, of which half is armored or filled. Restoring this habitat will benefit Chinook and other young salmon, forage fish spawning, and other fish and wildlife. The project has been split into manageable phases: Phase 1, complete by June 2023, will remove a 330-foot outfall that impedes sediment transport and restore 1.5 acres of nearshore forest and stream. This grant proposal seeks funding for Phases 2 and 3. Phase 2 entails restoring 1,245 feet of shoreline by removing 1,200 feet of shoreline armoring, relocating a boat launch, and revegetating 122,000 square feet of marine shoreline and forest. Phase 3 requires funding for final designs to remove the road and naturalize the west shore of the harbor, including four road crossings. Following restoration, only the essential infrastructure will remain, consolidated to a 200 foot stretch of shoreline, the remaining 1.4 mile of shoreline will be restored and protected.

This proposed project builds off of prior McNeil Island habitat restoration efforts.

McNeil Island — Bodley Creek Construction: WDFW

McNeil Island offers a unique opportunity to protect and restore habitat in a large setting within south Puget Sound. Much of the 12 miles of marine shoreline is in a natural state retaining high quality due limited public access. However, development related to the historic use for a federal/state penitentiary (closed in 2011) resulted in some locations being highly impacted with debris along the shorelines. WDFW and DNR are working with the Department of Corrections to restore as much of the shoreline to natural state as possible, while retaining the function of the perimeter road, essential for safety and security related to island operations of the Special Commitment Center.

The road bisects the estuary at Bodley Creek, disconnecting impounded wetlands from tidal influence by an undersized culvert, which is now failing. Building on a successful tidal reconnection project completed at Milewa Creek estuary and a second planned for Floyd’s Cove, WDFW proposes to replace the culvert at Bodley Creek with a fish-passable culvert or bridge to reconnect the former tidal wetlands. The project is expected to benefit Chinook and other estuarine fish and other wildlife. Construction is targeted for 2024 or 2025.

To learn more about the full list of proposed projects, reference the 2023–2025 preliminary investment plan.

Pending legislative outcomes, the funded projects will be announced in spring 2023.

To learn more about ESRP, visit the WDFW website.



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

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

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