Restoration expanding for Crescent Creek

A local nonprofit is moving north up Crescent Creek and expanding restoration efforts.

The Skagit River System Cooperative, a local nonprofit, has entered an early phase of moving north up Crescent Creek and expanding restoration efforts to benefit more juvenile salmon.

Crescent Creek is a small stream on North Whidbey that drains into the northwestern edge of the Crescent Harbor salt marsh, a 206-acre tidal channel wetland just north of Crescent Harbor on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Restoration has been a decades-long effort. In the early 1900s, residents built drains and channels in the area which made the land better for farmers and worse for migrating salmon.

After the Navy took over, they began to restore the land in the 1990s. Since 2007, the Navy and the Skagit River System Cooperative have worked together to breach coastal berms and reintroduce tidal exchange into the system, creating the salt marsh and allowing fish to access the area. The most recent phase of the project was completed in early 2022.

The Navy conducts water-based military training in Crescent Harbor, said Mike Welding, Navy public affairs officer. Maintaining a healthy ecosystem is part of the realistic and sustainable training environment they strive to provide for sailors.

“If there were 10 juvenile salmon seasonally using Crescent Harbor, and Navy training inadvertently harmed two of them, that is not a very sustainable situation,” Welding said, “but if there were 500,000 juvenile salmon seasonally using Crescent Harbor, and Navy training inadvertently harmed two of them, then that is a much more sustainable situation.”

While the Navy cannot affect all the life cycle stages of salmon in the Skagit River delta, they work to improve every resource they have control over, he said.

Restoration recently bubbled to the surface once more when the Whidbey Camano Land Trust purchased the property upstream. Members of the cooperative soon applied for a grant to expand the restoration north. In addition, they also received funding from the Navy for work on the culvert crossing on Navy property.

The work entails lengthening the stream and slowing down its velocity with pools, trees and natural features that juvenile salmon prefer, said Eric Mickelson, a restoration ecologist with the cooperative.

“The creek years and years ago had been put into a street ditch,” Mickelson said. “It was very deep and not very good habitat for salmon. So, we put it into kind of a sinuous alignment, more of its natural alignment.”

Juvenile salmon come out of the Skagit or other rivers and sometimes need extra time to acclimate to the saltwater environment before they migrate into the open ocean. They seek systems like Crescent Creek.

Earlier phases of the project had seen quick success. The lower part of the creek was completed in September 2022, and in just four months, around the time they would typically leave the river for the first time, salmon returned.

“It was great to see the fish come back,” Mickelson said, “and it’s always impressive how quickly they come back.”

Island County surveyors studying the upper portion of the creek have documented juvenile Chinook and coho salmon and other native fish species.

Currently, the cooperative is talking with neighboring landowners of the upper portion to understand local concerns and assess drainage.

Officials from Island County urge Whidbey Islanders to inspect their septic systems annually, or every two or three years depending on the systems, as these directly impact the health of the island’s streams.