In the late 1800s, a five-mile-long earthen dike was built where the Nisqually River enters southern Puget Sound. It created fertile farm land out of salt marsh. Now — more than a century later -– the tides of the Salish Sea are again flowing over that land. This week Liam walks the newly-restored estuary with Jean Takekawa, manager of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
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Liam Moriarty: This is quite the vista. What are we looking at?
Jean Takekawa: We’re looking out at a changing landscape. The tides are once again moving in and out twice a day, into this large area. It’s really fun to come at high tide. It’s very, very dramatic because the high tide can come right up to the base of this new lake that we’re standing on. It looks rather lake-like and you really are a part of Puget Sound then.
Liam: So this area, then, that we’re looking at, this broad, flat area that’s sort of brown – where basically these are fresh water plants that are dying now because salt water comes in here. So this is in the process of shifting from a fresh water habitat to a salt water habitat; is that right?
Jean: That’s right. It’s really a land in transition; as those fresh water plants die and the nutrients actually are contributing into the system. Then slowly it will convert to mud flats. We already are seeing small sprigs and pieces of salt marsh vegetation coming back in.
Liam: Why is that a good idea?
Jean: You know, one of the things that we struggle with in Puget Sound, is that we lost a lot of our estuaries. More than 80% of Puget Sound’s estuary habitat was lost to various sources of development. So this is one of those rare chances to bring back that habitat in a large way.
Liam: What’s the value of restoring the natural estuary function?
Jean: Estuaries are really unique because they are the place where fresh water of rivers mix with the salt water of Puget Sound, and create this very diverse mosaic of habitats. They are one of the richest, most diverse kinds of habitats there are.
This is really what we are looking at now; the heart of the estuary.
So when it was diked for farming, it removed a great majority of the salt marsh of the estuary, and that’s an important part of the engine that drives an estuary. So by being able to restore that heart of it, we are going to have an intact ecosystem that contributes a lot more to all of Puget Sound, not just to this local watershed or this local area.
Liam: What we call wetlands now, the settlers called swamp, and farm land was a lot more valuable than swamp, as far as they were concerned.
Jean: That’s right. I think they recognize that there were some great soils out here, and I will say that it was quite a feat of ambition and engineering that they built a more than five mile long dike by hand, with carts and mules. That dike was used to hold back the tides so the lands could be developed for farming.
Liam: This is historically salmon country. How does salmon restoration fit into this?
Jean: This project was actually identified as the top priority to recover Chinook salmon in the Nisqually watershed because of its large scope and scale, and the importance that estuary habitat plays for juvenile salmon; for them to move out into the estuary and grow in size and transition into that marine environment that they need to live in.
Already some of the studies are showing a great response by those juvenile fish. They’re feeding in the site.
Liam: Have you seen personally salmon come back?
Jean: I’ve seen adult Chum in the weeks after we removed the last of the dikes. Seeing those first tides come in was an incredible moment, knowing that it had been more than 100 years. Then to see in the coming days after that, how quickly things changed and how fast the tides took over the restoration process.
Jean: You know, if we’re going to restore Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, we’re going to have to do some really big things, and make some big commitments of both what we’re willing to do with our landscape or how we live, and also where we’re going to spend our money.
I think the thing this project represents, is what is possible if people work together.
Liam: You’re the manager here at the Natural Wildlife Refuge. Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re a federal bureaucrat. But I get the sense that this is more than just a job for you.
What lights you up about this?
Jean: I’ve had people tell me how moved they are to see the tides moving across the estuary again. I’ve had people, you know, be brought to tears when they came out and saw the first tide. That is a very moving thing.