The role of the Edmonds Marsh in renewing salmon runs and the orca whale population’s recovery — and the need to move quickly on Willow Creek daylighting to facilitate that — was a focal point of the Nov. 20 Edmonds City Council meeting.
“We are a poster child for salmon recovery and orca recovery,” Councilmember Diane Buckshnis said during Tuesday night’s meeting.
Buckshis also proposed, later in the meeting, that $1 million be diverted from the city’s Edmonds Waterfront Connector project budget to restoring the Edmonds Marsh.
During a council discussion and public hearing on a proposed update to the city’s capital facilities plan, Buckshnis expressed frustration that the city has not been applying in recent years for grant money to help finance the daylighting of Willow Creek. The city has been working for several years on plans to daylight — or open — the waterway, which currently flows through the marsh, then enters a 1,600-foot piping system, to Puget Sound. Officials have said that the piping system prevents salmon from being able to return from Puget Sound to Willow Creek to spawn.
Buckshnis said the time is now to push for grant funding, noting that the Gov. Jay Inslee has made orca whale recovery a priority. That fact was also noted by other speakers during the public hearing on the draft facilities plan Tuesday night.
“Clearly, efforts to improve and restore salmon habitat can make a difference for our salmon populations,” said Joe Scordino, a retired fisheries biologist who serves as an advisor to the Edmonds-Woodway High School Students Saving Salmon club. “This is why we need to be more aggressive in moving forward with the Willow Creek daylighting project.”
Two city department heads — Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite and Public Works Director Phil Williams — said during Tuesday night’s meeting that the city has been told not to bother applying for grant funding for the project until it can get permission to build across the Unocal property between the marsh and Puget Sound.
That land — the site of a recent Unocal cleanup of contaminated water and soil vapor from its former fuel terminal — has been in escrow with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) since 2005, according to the Unocal Edmonds cleanup website.
The state had planned to use the property’s lower yard for a relocated ferry terminal and passenger/commuter rail station known as Edmonds Crossing. However, in its most recent draft long-range ferry plan, WSDOT has removed all references to the Edmonds Crossing project, leading many to believe the ferry system no longer intends to use the Unocal property for a relocated terminal.
Grant funders have told City staff not to apply for Willow Creek daylighting grant funding until the the city can receive a land owner acknowledgment from WSDOT ferries, both Hite and Williams said.
“We haven’t applied because they (funders) have told us it would really be a waste of time until we could show a property interest,” Williams said. “Sometime after the first of the year, maybe very quickly after, there’s going to be a property transfer (from Unocal to WSDOT). It would be much easier then to sit down with WSDOT and talk about the city’s interest in the property.
“We need something that shows we have the right to do that — an agreement from the landowner that says yes, we support the city’s project. We can then go to the funding agencies,” Williams said.
But Buckshnis, who sits on the Water Resource Area Inventory 8 (WRIA8) Salmon Recovery Commission that in the past has awarded Willow Creek daylighting funding to Edmonds, questioned whether grant funders would reject an application from the city.
“I don’t know if that’s a correct statement that we have denied any type of funding request from Edmonds because of this land agreement,” she insisted.
Hite noted that her longtime contact for grants at the Salmon Recovery Funding Board through the State Recreation and Conservation Office, told her not to apply until the city had a landowner agreement. “We have been waiting to apply. We have been waiting to extend our 2014 grant. We have not been able to be competitive for the next stage of design, as the next stage is to design it through that property,” she said.
“We are really excited about this project,” Williams added. “We are doing everything we can to make it happen as quickly as possible.”
Regarding the budget amendment proposal by Buckshnis to remove $1 million from the Edmonds Waterfront Connector project and instead use it for Edmonds Marsh recovery, Finance Director Scott James said he wasn’t certain that could happen, since the city is receiving grant money specifically designated for the connector.
Buckshnis replied that if the $1 million couldn’t come from the connector project, it could come out the money that city administration has “squirreled away” for the city’s Civic Field project
“I believe next year we’re going to see some action and I as a councilmember want to show this society and the governor and everybody that I am very much making this my priority, and that it should and will get done,” Buckshnis said. “You can take it from wherever.”
In an email Thursday that reiterated his Tuesday council testimony, retired fisheries biologist Scordino noted that he has spent the past few weekends with the Students Saving Salmon Club surveying Edmonds’ lower Shell Creek for salmon.
“This last Sunday, during a two-hour survey of just a portion of lower Shell Creek, students saw more salmon than they had in all of the surveys last year,” Scordino said.
He noted that there are several fish passage barriers in Shell Creek — including a partially blocked culvert that observers worried might be preventing salmon access to the upper areas of the lower creek. “But, in spite of these obstacles and recent low flows due to lack of rain, salmon have returned to Shell Creek and both coho and chum salmon were observed spawning in the creek,” he said. “This demonstrates salmon’s resilience and ability to survive if given the chance.”
The Willow Creek daylighting project, which will include placing tidal channels or streams across the Unocal property, “will allow spawning salmon to again use Willow and Shellabarger Creeks and open the marsh for use by juvenile Chinook salmon,” Scordino said.
“Salmon recovery has been in the limelight of late due to the plight of the endangered killer whales that feed on them, and Edmonds can help by restoring open tidal channels to the Edmonds Marsh and upstream to Willow and Shellabarger Creeks,” he added.
— By Teresa Wippel