Estuary restoration at Leque Island

By: Lindsey Desmul

It’s not something you see every day — tidal water rushing onto dry land for the first time in 140 years, the pressure of it finally pushing over the flimsy bridge of earth separating salt water from the fresh water inside.

Leque Island, in the city of Stanwood, was returned to the estuary on Monday evening, Oct. 14, 2019. This was the third dike breach I’ve experienced. The first was in 2016 at Fir Island Farm in Skagit County, three months after I started working at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). The second was in 2018, Snohomish County’s Smith Island project. Massive in scale, many years in the making, such a great accomplishment, and an honor to be there to watch it.

Large machinery dug the remaining dike between tidal waters and inland Leque down to a short bridge. The remaining land was then overtopped when the tide came in, mixing the tidal waters with the water inside Leque.

Leque Island was a WDFW project. Daily I watched the project manager work with neighbors, hunters, birders, farmers, engineers, and biologists, trying to balance everyone’s wishes and needs. It’s amazing, how one small piece of land can be important to so many people. I learned you have to respect the past of the land before you can change it.

Before WDFW acquired Leque Island, the property was planted with hay and oats, and was productive farmland until it started to become too wet and began to sink. In 1879, three immigrant men built dikes by hand to surround Leque Island and developed homesteads there. The island still carries the name one of these original homesteaders. Before them, the stulәgw ábš people hunted and fished, gathered native plants, and lived there. Most recently, Leque Island was a favorite waterfowl hunting location, and attracted people from near and far to watch short-eared owls take flight.

Aerial from 1970 showing the three original homestead locations and farmland on Leque Island.
Volunteer bird count as part of the Leque Island restoration effort.
stulәgw ábš woman weaving mat in the Stillaguamish estuary. Photo by Harlan Smith, ca. 1899, courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History

This wasn’t just any piece of land we returned to the estuary; it is alive with history and memories, and that’s what made this day special. That’s what will make me remember this breach over the others. I gathered with engineers, biologists, reporters, and project managers on dry land, watching the water crest and finally fall into Leque Island for the first time in decades. Seals curiously watched from the river, fish jumped nearby in the current, and birds eagerly awaited their new habitat, circling in the sky above. It was oddly quiet — no whoops of celebration, no whir of heavy machinery, just the simple sound of the tide bringing in the flowing water.

Sunset over flood waters on Leque for the first time since 1879.

Project details

  • Removed 2.4 miles of levee to restore 250 acres of tidal marsh habitat in the Stillaguamish River watershed where 85% of historic tidal marsh has been displaced.
  • Built 0.7-mile wave protection berm to protect the City of Stanwood and also serve as an elevated walking trail for people.
  • Constructed new parking lot and handheld boat launch on Davis Slough to provide paddling access in the new tidal channels.

The site will be open to the public in mid-November.

Estuaries are important for juvenile Chinook salmon as they transition from fresh to salt water, as well as shorebirds, waterfowl, and a host of other species in the area. Because Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales rely upon Chinook salmon for food, the project is also closely aligned with orca recovery efforts.



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.