Navy and non-profit team up to build creek

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Navy and non-profit team up to build creek

A collaborative creek restoration project wrapped up Wednesday with a small creekside ceremony.

A collaborative creek restoration project between the Navy and a local nonprofit officially ended Wednesday with a small creekside ceremony, but the ongoing salmon restoration effort will continue for years to come.

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and the Skagit River System Cooperative have been working together since September to turn a ditch on Navy property in North Whidbey into a meandering freshwater stream to provide juvenile salmon with a place to acclimate to the life in salt water.

“Projects like this are really important for juvenile salmon. There isn’t as much habitat available in river deltas and along the banks as there used to be,” said Eric Mickelson, the co-op’s project coordinator. “They look for places like this where there is fresh water flowing into the salt marshes, where they can come in and acclimate and hide from bigger fish that might want to eat them. We find that fish that do this have a better chance of survival once out of the ocean.

The creek is just the latest in a series of projects the Navy has undertaken over the past three decades to improve the parcel of land east of Oak Harbor and south of Crescent Harbor Road. In the early 1900s, residents built drains and canals in the area in an effort to make the land dry and cultivable. The Navy became interested in restoring the land in the 1990s, after taking possession of the area.

Since 2007, the Navy and the Skagit River System Cooperative have worked together to break through the coastal berms and reintroduce tidal exchange to the system, creating a large salt marsh and allowing fish access to the area.

While monitoring the site, the Navy and Co-op noticed young salmon stopping at the top of the swamp, likely in an attempt to reach the freshwater exchange from the original channeled stream that no longer had entry point into the marsh. The creek restoration project, which began in September 2021, was implemented in direct response to the needs expressed by fish.

John Phillips, the Navy’s natural resources manager, said the transition from fresh water where salmon are spawned to salt water where they spend most of their adult lives is difficult. Young salmon need spaces with a supply of fresh water to gradually prepare for life in the ocean.

The Navy and Co-op created the new creek from a straight ditch that once existed on the property. When building the creek, they had to add bends and meandering to the design to make the current slow and steady enough to sustain the system.

Efforts to create healthy habitats for salmon have far-reaching environmental and cultural effects, according to Swinomish Tribe Chairman Steve Edwards.

“The importance of salmon to our people is monumental. It’s part of our tradition. It’s part of our culture. It has always been part of our diet for thousands of years,” he said at the ceremony on Wednesday. “We can’t thank you enough for the partnership, the love, bringing our communities together, building those relationships. That’s what we need.

The creek project cost about $300,000, with funding coming from grants received by the Co-op and the Navy.

“The Navy by design isn’t really a restoration or science organization,” Phillips said. “But a healthy ecosystem provides a realistic training environment for sailors training at Crescent Harbour.”

Phillips said the Navy will continue to monitor salmon and other fish in the marsh area to assess the impact of the creek project.

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