Site of proposed levee setback on the north fork of the Skagit River

A map from Puget Sound Nearshore Estuary Restoration Project May 2012 design report shows the location of a project planned for the Skagit River.

A project that would restore fish habitat along the north fork of the Skagit River on Fir Island has federal approval to move forward.

President Barack Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act on Friday. The act makes federal money available for major water projects such as replacing infrastructure in Flint, Michigan, where communities are recovering from lead poisoning, and improving access to irrigation water in drought-prone California.

Among the projects authorized in the bill are three from the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project that are expected to cost a combined $461.6 million for design and construction.

One of them would set back levees on a section of the Skagit River on Fir Island. The project would involve removing farms, homes and businesses within as much as a 555-acre area if property owners are willing to sell, according to the preliminary design for the project.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen has long supported the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project, and lobbied for funding to be included in the water bill.

“No doubt about it — this is a big win for everyone who cares about protecting Puget Sound,” Larsen said in a news release. “The environment is not only the cornerstone of Washington state’s cultural identity, but also its recreational and agricultural economies.”

State, federal and tribal agencies have been collaborating for 15 years on the restoration project. The goal is to prioritize major restoration projects in the region to help reach the state’s nearshore habitat restoration goals.

Restoring nearshore habitat is important to repair damage caused by decades of waterfront development, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nearshore habitat includes beaches and river deltas used by many fish and wildlife species in Puget Sound, including protected salmon.

The Army Corps and state Department of Fish & Wildlife are working together on Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project designs.

The water bill acknowledges the anticipated cost of the proposed projects and authorizes Congress to fund them in the future.

Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project officials have said once they had authorization to continue work on the projects through the water bill, their next steps would be to increase public outreach and stakeholder involvement.

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

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