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In response to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community’s threat to sue, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed last week to take a new look at the regionally developed Skagit Delta Tidegate Fish Initiative under the federal Endangered Species Act.

In a letter dated Nov. 8, the corps’ Seattle District Engineer Col. Alexander “Xander” Bullock wrote that the federal agency is taking steps to reevaluate the initiative.

The initiative is a 2010 agreement in which local dike, drainage and irrigation districts agreed to restore a certain amount of estuary habitat in exchange for being able to maintain tidegates that can block fish from valuable habitat.

Tidegates are mechanisms that allow fresh water to drain into salt water during low tide, but block salt water from entering the freshwater system during high tide.

In September, the Swinomish tribe sent the corps a 60-day notice of intent to sue, asserting the corps had failed to uphold the Endangered Species Act by granting construction permits to dike, drainage and irrigation districts under the Skagit Delta Tidegate Fish Initiative for five years without requiring the agreed-upon estuary restoration as mitigation.

The tribe estimates 660 acres of estuary habitat should have been restored but was not.

Now, the corps plans to reinitiate what is called Section 7 consultation for the program under the Endangered Species Act, is in the meantime requiring individual Section 7 consultation for each project proposed through the program, and will review previously approved projects.

The corps’ letter also states the agency is requiring Skagit Delta Tidegate Fish Initiative partners — the Western Washington Agricultural Association, National Marine Fisheries Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife — to revise their implementation agreement given updated information about chinook salmon and estuary health.

The program oversight committee “must take independent proactive action to address the current status of habitat restoration in the Skagit Valley,” the letter states.

The Swinomish tribe sees the corps’ decision as a win for Skagit River chinook salmon recovery, which according to the 2005 Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan will require significant habitat restoration in the estuary where fresh water and salt water mix.

Swinomish Tribal Chairman Steve Edwards said in a statement released Nov. 9 that the corps’ decision is “an important step in the right direction.”

Despite efforts to restore habitat throughout the Skagit River watershed, the wild chinook salmon population remains at a fraction of historical levels.

“There are tribal members that can’t feed their families because our salmon are hurting and chinook can’t recover without more estuary habitat,” Edwards’ statement reads.

The state of the chinook population, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is of increasing concern for tribes that have treaty rights to harvest the fish, for the endangered Southern Resident orcas that eat the fish at sea, and for the state’s overall environmental and economic health.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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