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Navy supports community partnership to restore historic Puget Sound fish passage

Kilisut Harbor groundbreaking ceremony
PORT HADLOCK, Wash. (Aug. 12, 2019) Local citizens of Marrowstone Island, Navy Region Northwest Sailors, state and federal government officials, and members from numerous groups around the Puget Sound and Olympic region participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for the Kilisut Harbor Restoration Project. The U.S. Navy contributed funding to a partnership that will replace the existing causeway between Indian Island and Marrowstone Island with a new bridge. As a result, salmon will once again be able to use a historic migration channel through Kilisut Harbor out to the Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Wyatt L. Anthony/Released)

09/25/20 02:58 PM

Story by: Naval Magazine Indian Island Public Affairs Officer Julianne Stanford

An earthen roadway with sediment-clogged culverts obstructed the waterway along the southeastern border of Naval Magazine Indian Island for more than 75 years, however water now freely flows into Kilisut Harbor thanks to a nearly completed effort to restore the historic tidal channel.

The North Olympic Salmon Coalition, which spearheaded this project, brought together more than a dozen federal, state, county, tribal and private entities – including the U.S. Navy - to support and fund this important decade-long restoration work.

“Partnerships like this are vital for the preservation of our beloved Puget Sound region,” said Naval Magazine Indian Island Commanding Officer Cmdr. Donald Emerson. “It enables us to fulfill our commitment of being good stewards of the environment while balancing our national defense mission.”

This effort will yield long-lasting benefits for the area’s ecosystem and will ultimately create an estimated 2,300 acres of productive habitat in Puget Sound.

The $12.6 million project sought to remove the old earthen causeway built between Indian Island and neighboring Marrowstone Island in the 1940s and replace it with an elevated bridge, thereby enabling tidal flow to begin once again. The construction crew and restoration team broke ground on the project in August 2019 and a little more than one year later, the project is almost finished.

“This being one of the largest restoration projects undertaken in the marine environment for Puget Sound is pretty amazing,” said Bill Kalina, environmental site manager for Naval Magazine Indian Island. “It will benefit this area for years to come.”

Today, the soon-to-be-completed bridge joins the two islands together. Crisp, cool water freely flows north from Oak Bay through the tidal channel into Kilisut Harbor’s warmer water for the first time in decades. Marine life has already returned to the area with various fish and crab species making their way through the channel.

Among many other benefits, reopening the tidal channel will greatly improve Kilisut Harbor’s overall water quality. It will create better conditions for shellfish along the shorelines, improve staging and foraging habitat for numerous bird species, and restore a historic fish migration route out to the Pacific Ocean for many species, including Endangered Species Act-protected salmon.  

“There’s pristine habitat between Marrowstone Island and Indian Island that these salmon haven’t been able to access for all of that time,” said Rebecca Benjamin, executive director of the North Olympic Salmon Coalition. “This is a place where they can feed and fatten up before they head out to the mid-waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and further out into the ocean for their ocean migration.”

Neighboring communities have been interested in replacing the old earthen causeway for decades, ever since the water quality in Kilisut Harbor started to deteriorate after the overall sediment build-up in the area choked off water flow through the causeway’s culverts during the 1970s.

Despite this early local support, it has taken decades to garner enough funding and widespread support to make this goal into a reality, Benjamin said.

The project’s successful path forward became clear about a decade ago when the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe gathered data that showed juvenile salmon were piling up on the south side of the causeway, yearning to get in to Kilisut Harbor.

“With that really clear visual, with all of the salmon on one side, and their preferred prey on the other side, we were able to start telling the story more clearly that this causeway needed to go and we needed a bridge,” Benjamin said.

From there, the North Olympic Salmon Coalition started to bring other partners on board, including the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Navy.

“The Navy was a really important partner in this project,” Benjamin said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership of the Navy because a lot of this project takes place on Navy property.”

The Northwest Navy team supported this effort by granting construction and access easements for the project site on Navy property, participating in site surveys, and contributing design input.

The Navy also contributed $1 million in funding for this project through a cooperative agreement with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition. This contribution was made possible through a Memorandum of Agreement with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, and Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe as mitigation for impacts to their Tribal Treaty Resources near Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

Many members of the Northwest Navy team contributed their expertise to the Navy’s support of this project, including personnel from Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest and Naval Base Kitsap.

This project “represents the kind of projects that are usually once in a lifetime,” said Lynn Wall, a community planning liaison officer with the Navy.

“It represents the kind of community partnerships and cooperation we work to foster to address common issues,” Wall said. “It represents the magnitude of what can be achieved when we all use the full extent of our authorities.”

With the newly opened channel, Naval Magazine Indian Island asks the public to continue to respect the installation’s southeastern boundaries. NMII is a restricted access installation, which means the beaches that fall on Navy property near the channel are not open to the public.

"We hope everyone can enjoy the restored waterway near our island while respecting our installation boundaries and security requirements," said NMII Commanding Officer Cmdr. Emerson.