Qwuloolt Estuary, meaning "marsh" in the
Lushootseed language of the Tulalip people, lies within the Snohomish
River floodplain approximately three miles upstream from its outlet to
The Snohomish River
watershed drains 1,980 square miles of the western Cascades and is the second
largest river basin surrounding Puget Sound. The watershed’s three major rivers, the
Skykomish, the Snoqualmie, and the Snohomish, support significant runs of coho,
Chinook, chum, pink salmon, and steelhead and anadromous bull trout. River flows carry sediment downstream and
deposit rich, silty nutrients in the lowlands of the estuary delta. These sediments and the eroding power of the
river helped to form the estuary’s 19 square miles of marshes, forested
islands, distributary sloughs, mudflats, and connecting channels. Tides also influence the Qwuloolt area and Snohomish
River as far as 20 miles upstream
from its mouth. The height of the tides
and the balance of salt and fresh water determines the composition and
diversity of plants and habitats found in the estuary.
Today only 17% of
the estuary area remains due to extensive diking and tide gates which restrict
the river and tides from reaching wetland areas in the floodplain. On the Qwuloolt, a levee was constructed on
the north bank of Ebey Slough and tide gates were installed at the mouth of
Allen and Jones creeks to convert the land for agriculture at the beginning of
the twentieth century. As a consequence,
the dike and tide gates prevented tidal processes from reaching the floodplain
which destroyed the estuary marsh habitats and restricted salmon and other
estuarine-dependent species from utilizing this critical habitat. In addition, stream channels upstream of the
tide gates were ditched fifty years ago, impairing water quality and decreasing
habitat quality within Allen and Jones creeks.
This project will return the historic and natural influences
of the river and tides to the Qwuloolt in order to restore tidal wetlands that
benefit numerous estuarine-dependent plants and animals.
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Historically, the lower Snohomish estuary consisted of a
gradient of estuary habitats with mudflats at the lowest elevations, tidal
marshes and scrub-shrub wetlands with their various grasses, sedges, bulrush, cattails,
willow, and rose growing under different salinity conditions at intermediate
elevations, and finally, at the highest elevations, tidally influenced swamp
forests with Sitka spruce, pine, fir, crab apple, and alder.
Mudflats, tidal marsh,
stream channels, and upland riparian forest habitat types are expected to re-establish
at the Qwuloolt once river and tidal connection is restored. Lyngby’s sedge, hard stem bulrush, and
cattail will be some of the dominant marsh species to first revegetate the
Qwuloolt, while upland riparian areas will be planted with Sitka spruce, rose, fir, and pine to accelerate
Sitka spruce (Picea
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One of the most important functions of the estuary is providing
spawning, rearing, and feeding areas for many fish and wildlife including
salmon. Salmon species utilize the
estuary twice, as adults and juveniles, when they migrate between the river
basin and marine waters of Puget Sound. Salmon are able to migrate through the
estuary’s distributary sloughs, although extensive diking and tide gates
restrict their access to small side channels and adjacent wetlands. These side channels and wetlands provide
essential habitat for hiding from predators, resting during migration, and
feeding. It is estimated that loss of
these side channel habitats and estuary wetlands have reduced Chinook
production capacity to between 40% and 61% of its historic level.
The estuary continues to support a large commercial and
recreational salmon fishery. Multiple
stocks of anadromous fish include four Pacific salmon (Chinook [Oncorhynchus tshawytscha], coho [Oncorhynchus kisutch], chum [Oncorhynchus keta], and pink [Oncorhynchus gorbuscha]; anadromous and
resident trout (cutthroat [Oncorhynchus
clarki], steelhead/rainbow [Oncorhynchus
mykiss]); and anadromous and resident char (Dolly Varden [Salvelinus malma], bull trout [Salvelinus confluentus], and brook trout
[Salvelinus alpinus]). Chinook and bull trout are listed as threatened
species under the Endangered Species Act.
All stocks are at risk because of historic losses of estuary habitat and
continued environmental degradation.
Restoration of the Snohomish estuary is a high priority for salmon
recovery in the region.
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Birds and Wildlife
The mosaic of tidal marshes, forested wetlands, sloughs and
mudflats within the estuary provide a wide range of foraging,
nesting, and roosting habitats for over 350 species of migratory
and resident birds. Birds found in the estuary include: canada
geese, brant, green-winged teal, wood ducks, redheads, tundra
and trumpeter swans, great-blue herons, arctic terns, bonaparte’s
gulls, ring-billed and mew gulls, red-tailed hawks, kingfishers,
bald eagles, osprey and great-horned owls. The best time to
see birds is early or late in the day and during the spring
and summer when breeding birds return with bright plumage
to sing and perform to attract mates and raise their young.
Bald eagles can be seen year round at the top of dead snags
or spruce trees perching and looking for prey below.
The Snohomish River and estuary also support diverse populations
of mammals. At the outlet to Puget Sound, you can see harbor
seals and sea lions bobbing or barking in the waves. Further
up river, beaver, otter, and muskrat inhabit the sloughs and
connecting stream channels and you can often see their slides
along the muddy banks. Mink, raccoon, deer, coyote, porcupine,
and small rodents live in the uplands habitats and move freely
between the forested islands by swimming the sloughs and channels.
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People have occupied the
Puget Sound region for thousands of years depending for
subsistence on marine life as well as other natural resources from the
surrounding lands, wetlands, and forests.
Ancestors of the allied bands of the Tulalip Tribes including Snohomish,
Snoqualmie, Skagit, Suiattle, Samish, and Stillaguamish, lived
throughout the Snohomish River basin and estuary.
In the mid-1850s, the Snohomish River valley underwent dramatic changes as non-native settlement brought the
first steamboat to the estuary in 1855. Timber
harvesting soon followed in 1861. A
naturalist and early settler of the city of Snohomish described the region in 1885 as follows: “The open tide marshes seldom extend over 3
miles in a straight line from salt water.
Then come the spruce lands, that require diking against tidal overflow,
with open patches of ordinary tide marsh… above them are tracks of marsh
interspersed with ordinary bottom land, not subject to tidal but liable to
river overflow.” (Morse in Nesbit,
By 1902 the entire
forest within the Snohomish River floodplain was logged, followed by the draining
of thousands of acres of marsh, ditching of floodplain streams, and the
clearing of river and stream banks to establish farms. However, the Snohomish River floodplain never provided secure farmland since the river and tides
breached levees and flooded lowlands throughout the last century.
Today, the Snohomish River is surrounded by cities and rural areas that are rapidly urbanizing. The estuary acts as a refuge, a wildlife
sanctuary, and natural buffer that is valued for its beauty and protective
functions. People enjoy the estuary every
day by hiking, kayaking, boating, fishing, bird watching, or simply taking in
the view. They
also benefit from the
clean water and air the estuary maintains, its flood storage and
capacity, and its continued use for commercial, industrial, and
business. In particular, the Qwuloolt represents a critical
natural and cultural resource for the people of the Tulalip Tribes.
The Qwuloolt Restoration
Project is made possible through the cooperation of many partners including
tribal, local, county, state, and federal agencies as well as private
individuals and organizations. Partners
agree that working together, so that resources and information are shared, funds
are spent in a strategic way, and the best available science and past
experiences are used to make decisions, ensures the project’s success.
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Restoration activities occurring
throughout the Snohomish River estuary are critical to the restoration of the
estuary as a whole. The following projects
describe other efforts to restore a diversity of habitats within the estuary:
Ebey Slough Restoration
In 1994, 14 acres of floodplain adjacent to the Qwuloolt
and along Ebey Slough were restored to a tidal wetland complex. Today the site is dominated by mudflats,
Lyngby’s sedge, hardstem bulrush, and cattail. This
site offers a reference for what early recovery of the Qwuloolt
may look like.
Union Slough / Smith Island Restoration
Over the past few years, the City of Everett
and Port of Everett completed two restoration projects on Union Slough
restoring almost 100 acres to tidal action. About 5 acres of restored mudflats,
tidal channels, and esturine marsh can be seen to the west of I-5 at its
crossing with Union Slough. Further upstream on Union Slough, a
portion of Smith Island was restored to a tidal wetland system
in order to improve flood protection for the City of Everett
Water Pollution Control Facility. Restoring wetlands improved
the flood storage capacity of the island while reinforcing
dikes behind the wetlands strengthened flood protection.
Snohomish County is also planning to restore an additional
300 acres by removing the entire northeastern portion of
the island’s levee.
Spencer Island Restoration
A decade ago, a dike enclosing the southern perimeter of
the island was breached in three places, allowing inundation
of 60 acres of isolated floodplain. Recently, the internal
cross-dike failed, returning river and tidal influence to
the entire wetland complex. South Spencer Island is one of
the most well studied restoration projects in the estuary.
It continues to provide valuable information for today’s
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