For the first time in 135 years, the tide flows freely onto Leque Island.
Workers breached Monday the dike surrounding 250 acres between Stanwood and Camano Island, allowing seawater at high tide to advance up to Highway 532.
The Leque Island restoration project — 15 years in the making — creates saltwater marshes that provide habitat for young salmon, birds and other wildlife.
“There have been so many twists and turns along the way,” Loren Brokaw, restoration projects coordinator with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, said Monday as he watched the incoming waters rush inland. “It’s kind of surreal we’re to this point now.”
The tide flows into channels dug two years ago during the first phase of the project, led by Fish & Wildlife. The channels snake through the former farmland and connect to Davis Slough, the existing channel marking the beginning of Camano Island.
The site will open to the public in about two weeks. It will feature two kayak boat launches and a .75-mile trail atop a new, higher berm meant to protect Stanwood from large waves.
“It’s going to look wildly different,” Brokaw said. “It’ll actually look like what the land originally looked like. Camano will finally feel like an island.”
Before settlers started to dike the land in 1886, much of Leque Island was a saltwater marsh that provided habitat for many species, including juvenile salmon. The dike was expanded throughout the years to reclaim land for farming and homesteads.
But in the past few years, parts of the dike had failed, most recently in 2016. And farmers were no longer asking to use the land.
When crews mowed down thick blackberry brambles shrouding the dike in July, they found the dike was only inches wide in places.
“It probably wouldn’t have lasted too much longer,” Brokaw said.
Because of fears the dike would fail, Fish & Wildlife opted to dig channels on the land two years ago in case the ocean busted through onto the land and making it inaccessible for heavy equipment, Brokaw said.
“We didn’t want to risk the project,” he said. “If the dike failed, we wouldn’t have been able to do work.”
The restoration project has started and stopped several times over the years to address concerns of landowners with nearby wells, hunters and other groups. But officials completed studies and surveys to mitigate their concerns, Brokaw said.
A mix of groups are helping are helping pay for the project, including Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Fish and Wildlife's Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Floodplains by Design, and state Department of Ecology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When reopened to the public, the land will be available to hunters.
“It’ll be more of a cultural change for local hunters,” said C.K. Eidem, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited. “This will result in more birds, and that’s a good thing. It’ll be a change for hunters. Our members were split on this project. But we do things that make biological sense.”
Brokaw said officials will monitor the site to gather data on wildlife changes.
“Our work is far from done here,” he said.
Recently, state and tribal officials completed two other nearby estuary restoration projects: a 131-acre site on Fir Island west of Conway and a 107-acre site across the Stillaguamish River from Leque Island called “zis a ba.”
The Leque project includes a new 17-car parking lot off Eide Road to access the new trail on the 15 1/2-foot berm.
The trail will feature benches, interpretive signs and places to launch kayaks. The Davis Slough parking lot along Highway 532 will also feature access to a new kayak boat launch.
“The road onto Camano will suddenly have all these easy-to-access recreation opportunities,” Brokaw said. “We’re guessing this is going to be a popular site.”