Saving salmon: How a tribe, governments and nonprofits came together to rescue an estuary

The work began in 2007, but even now the Skokomish estuary is a work in progress.

An estuary – the area where a freshwater river meets the salty waters of the sea – is critical habitat for a variety of wildlife. Right now, with a number of Washington’s salmon species endangered, estuary restoration is the biggest ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of investment.

The work happening now is mostly related to ensuring invasive species don’t overtake the roughly 1,000-acre site. At least, that’s the most noticeable human interaction.

Joseph Pavel, the Skokomish Tribe’s Natural Resources Director, told FOX 13 News that the bulk of the work unfolding now are natural processes that will continue for years.

For decades, prime salmon habitat was overpowered by mankind. As Pavel describes it, the land was dammed, diked, and ditched – roads were built over channels. What would become known as the Nalley Farm was essentially built in the middle of the mouth of the Skokomish River, the largest river delta on Hood Canal.

"I couldn’t tell you how many different grants we wrote," said Pavel. "How many funding agencies were a part of this. We had to remove close to three miles of dikes, fill in tens of thousands of feet of what we call barrow ditches and ponds."

That work was no simple task, either. The Nalley Farm had created barns, silos and roads in the middle of forested wetlands and intertidal wetlands. Pavel recalls talks in the early 90s about how they’d reconnect the natural habitat – the work began with a host of partners in 2007 including the tribe and the Mason County Conservation District.

State and federal partners, including NOAA, awarded more than $6 million in grants to a variety of partners over the course of three phases, stretching roughly a decade. Roads were removed, culverts were taken out, and infrastructure in the area had to be re-routed. A temporary bridge was constructed to access Nalley Island where additional restoration work was needed.

It sounds like a lot of work, and those involved admit: it was. Not only in the amount of restoration work, but the partnerships that were needed to get everything done.

As Paul Cereghino, a restoration ecologist with NOAA, described it, the timing was important, too.

"At the time of restoration, the old Nalley farm was right smack in the middle of the river mouth with a wall built around it," said Cereghino. "That old, walled farm would fail in time. It wouldn’t fail with a lot of benefit to fish. So, by putting all the piece back in the right place, it lets the site heal a lot faster."

Cereghino described it like a surgery. The Tribe, and various groups had to rearrange a lot and return everything to its proper place to ensure long-term benefit. 

"The neat thing about restoring an estuary—most stuff you buy, as soon as you buy it, it’s breaking down. And over time when you restore an estuary, it keeps getting better. Once you put all the pieces in place, it’s a self-sustaining system. It builds up the marshes over time."

Pavel talked about it as stewardship. Healthy rivers and streams are good for fish, but they’re also important for people too – this work will also reduce flooding hazards.

Caution: Salmon crossing! Skokomish River flood brings salmon to the streets

Those weren't your typical pedestrians crossing the streets of Mason County during an atmospheric river Thursday afternoon. It was salmon!

Over time, sediment from further up the river will work itself down and rebuild what people had long ago torn down. The restoration work that took years is only the beginning; they created a path for nature to take back over.

READ MORE: Saving PNW salmon may involve saving another fish too, scientists say

Get breaking news alerts in the FREE FOX 13 Seattle app. Download for Apple iOS or Android. And sign up for BREAKING NEWS emails delivered straight to your inbox.

Channels will provide salmon and steelhead refuge from predators. The work is now considered a cornerstone in salmon recovery in Puget Sound, after a majority of estuaries were re-routed and disturbed through decades of development.

"These salmon are vitally important to the tribal members," said Pavel. "They sustain our traditional lifestyle, our subsistence, our economy. These resources – these salmon – are a foundational element of all of that. It all starts from the waters, the habitat… the river."