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FIR ISLAND — Massive machinery was used Monday to dig into a long-standing dike on Fir Island, creating a gap to allow Skagit Bay to flow through.

By mid-afternoon, with the tide coming in, water inundated fields that had been shielded from saltwater for decades.

The breaching was a long-awaited, pivotal part of a project to restore 131 acres of fish habitat in the Skagit River delta.

"It's surreal ... It's nice to see it all happening," state Department of Fish & Wildlife project manager Jenna Friebel said.

At her back, a new 5,800-foot dike built to protect adjacent farmland encircled the newly opened habitat.

Over time, the saltwater will smother the weeds populating the area and marsh vegetation will take over. 

Friebel said the hope is that it will replicate the habitat seen on the other side of the dike, which is muddy, with tall grasses and scattered driftwood.

"From now on it will just be Skagit Bay, which will be really cool. The salmon will love it," Fish & Wildlife project coordinator William Yarbrough said. "After all the time and work we've put into this, seeing it opened up and the tide free-flowing through is awesome."

In February, the first round of juvenile chinook salmon to use the new habitat will start their migration downstream. 

The new habitat is expected to support an additional 65,000 young chinook a year, according to a Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Fund fact sheet. The fund provided $13.4 million toward the $16.4 million project.

Restoring estuary habitat — areas where freshwater and saltwater meet — is a top priority in helping the recovery of Puget Sound chinook salmon, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Those habitat areas are critical for juvenile salmon as they transition from freshwater to saltwater, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service's Puget Sound Chinook Recovery Plan.

Fish & Wildlife leads the Fir Island Farms estuary restoration project — located on the agency's Fir Island Farms Unit property — in partnership with other federal, state and local government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.

The Western Washington Agricultural Association and Skagit County Consolidated Diking Improvement District 22 were among those who provided input for the project. 

Brandon Roozen, director of the Western Washington Agricultural Association, said there is general support for the project, but some farmers remain concerned with the conversion of farmland to other uses.

"We are still losing farmlands," he said.

The association backed the project as part of the Skagit Delta Tidegates and Fish Initiative.

The initiative, an agreement between the association and state and federal agencies, requires fish projects in the Skagit and Samish river deltas to have minimal impacts to neighboring farms. 

"Our support for salmon recovery and these projects in general is linked up with how drainage infrastructure, such as tidegates, are replaced," Roozen said. "When infrastructure is removed, like the dike and tidegate in this project, those have to be replaced."

The Fir Island Farms project included putting in new dikes and tidegates, we well as a pump house, at no cost to the area dike district.

Skagit Consolidated Diking Improvement District 22 Commissioner Greg Lee said the district worked closely with Fish & Wildlife's Friebel to plan the infrastructure replacement. 

"Hopefully we will have as good if not better drainage than we have now," said Lee, who owns farmland on the north end of Fir Island.

While the dike district supported the project, the project still doesn't sit well with some farmers.

"This is a project that we don't like to see happening, taking good farming ground and turning it into fish habitat," said Lee, whose family once owned the land inundated with water Monday.

"As a commissioner I don't have a problem with it. As a farmer and a taxpayer I don't like seeing it," he said.

Fields surrounding the project site are green with crops that include corn, potatoes and spinach seed. 

The pump house included in the project will allow farmers to drain water off their fields even during high tide, which previously wasn't possible, Friebel said.

She and project partners, such as staff from The Nature Conservancy, were glad to be able to design the project in a way that benefited neighboring farmers.

"The conservancy is really interested in seeing these (habitat restoration) projects move forward in a way that is compatible with the surrounding community," conservancy restoration manager Jenny Baker said.

The Fir Island Farms project is the latest in a series of estuary restoration projects that help restore some of the tidal marsh habitat in Skagit County lost over the years to development.

Work on the Fir Island Farms project started in 2009 and construction began in 2014.

Last summer crews started building the new dike inland from the one dismantled Monday.

The site closed to the public in April for the second round of construction.

As work continues this summer, a 200-foot section of the dike will be completely removed, Fish & Wildlife environmental engineer Channing Syms said. The rest of the dike will be shortened to various heights to allow the water to spill over in different areas. 

Fish & Wildlife spokeswoman Alison Hart said the work is expected to be finished in September, and a public ribbon cutting is scheduled for Oct. 5.

When the property reopens to the public, it will be equipped with new walkways, viewpoints and signs displaying information.

The property, which attracts thousands of snow geese between October and April as well as a variety of raptors, will remain a snow goose reserve where hunting is not allowed.

It is also part of Fish & Wildlife's Skagit Wildlife Area, which includes 16 properties in Skagit, Island, Snohomish and San Juan counties that provide a combined 16,700 acres of wildlife habitat.

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

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