'A key piece of salmon’s life cycle': Landscape restoration looks to help the environment, jobs

TACOMA, Wash. -- Three ducks glide across the surface of the waterway that meanders across the tide flats. The tide is out and some of the exposed muddy ground is only partly covered with some young vegetation. 

“This site is a key piece of a salmon’s life cycle,” says Jenn Stebbings.

She’s a biologist with the Port of Tacoma and was part of the restoration project near Commencement Bay. It was a tall order, turning a former gravel mine and inert landfill into critical salmon habitat. The Port of Tacoma and the Puyallup Tribe teamed up to make it happen. 

The 30 acres might not look like much, but this area off Hylebos Creek is a vast improvement to the earlier gravel mine and toxic landfill. This is where juvenile salmon learn to breathe salt water. 

“As the tide comes in,” says Stebbings, "it has the opportunity to fill these channels and circle around and fill the area and circles back out.” 

About 265,000 tons of old landfill had to be removed from the site. That’s the amount of material that would be enough to make the Space Needle and it’s giant cement foundation — 45 times over. The meandering waterways here had to be carved into the former toxic landscape too. 

“This is one of the prime examples of a successful project with the port and the tribe working closely together to make something beautiful and phenomenal happen,” says Port of Tacoma Commissioner Clare Petrich. She says polluted lands that can be reclaimed for fish and people alike is a win for the environment and jobs. 

“Lands that have been polluted,” says Petrich, "can be cleaned and put into productive work so that we can re-create jobs for our community right now.” 

Both Hylebos Creek and the Puyallup River — considered one of the state’s most polluted — empty into Commencement Bay. So, while salmon runs are improving, these restoration efforts are definitely not done. 

“There’s still a long ways to go in the watershed,” says Stebbings.

The port biologist says the Puyallup Tribe has recently reported that Clear Creek in Pierce County — which is a tributary of the Puyallup — had one of its biggest Chinook runs in four decades. She says that’s the kind of news that gives some hope to these kinds of restoration efforts.