Finding Common Ground on Padilla Bay

Feb 1, 2024

A narrow fringe of saltmarsh.

In the mid-1800s, more than 7,000 acres of tidal marsh thrived in Washington’s Padilla Bay. Today there are fewer than 220. With $2.3 million in NOAA funding—made possible by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL)—the Padilla Bay Reserve became the proud owners of a stretch of land that could catalyze a saltmarsh revival for the region and serve as a model for combining restoration with strategies to protect people and infrastructure from rising seas and extreme storms.

Their focus is Samish Island, where a slough once connected Padilla and Samish bays. The island became attached to the mainland by an isthmus in the early 1900s when the slough was blocked and adjacent wetlands were diked and converted to farmland. BIL funding helped the Reserve purchase 74.5 acres of the isthmus and begin a feasibility assessment to support returning that land to marsh and reconnecting tidal flows between Padilla and Samish Bays.

Map of the Samish Isthmus. The tidal restoration project area is highlighted in yellow (Padilla Bay Reserve lands) and blue (Skagit Land Trust). The only road to Samish Island crosses the project area and is highly vulnerable to coastal flooding.

“We are grateful to our project partners, the Skagit Land Trust, who own the adjacent land, purchased and held our parcels until we received the NOAA grant, and paved the way for this idea with local communities,” says Roger Fuller, Stewardship Coordinator for the Reserve. With Restoration Specialist Cori Gardner, the co-lead for the project, “we are excited for the opportunity to restore some of the marsh that was here historically and monitor its progress over time.”

A week after the Land Trust purchased the property, the team’s restoration goals expanded. A historic storm, fueled by a king tide, swept over the dikes protecting the parcel and flooded the access road for Samish Island, population 3,920. What had started as a marsh restoration project became a collaboration with Skagit County, the Dike District, and the Washington Coastal Zone Management Program (CZMP) to integrate public access and safety concerns into their restoration planning.

Flooded road after the historic December 2022 storm.

“After the storm, our community partners immediately said: this is not the only place with vulnerability; we need to think at a broader scale,” says Fuller. “Our dikes may be the most vulnerable, but there is a lot of erosion and overtopping happening that threatens infrastructure throughout the area. By working with the Dike District, the county, and the local community, we’ll be able to significantly improve the resilience of the road, dike system, and farm drainage infrastructure that is so critical to the people here.”

View of diked farmland.

Together, the Reserve and CZMP are convening a resilience workgroup with stakeholders to identify vulnerabilities and explore opportunities to integrate infrastructure and habitat improvements in ways that improve resilience for both. The process, Fuller observes, will bring together people “who aren’t always on the same side of the table and don’t agree on everything” and help them find common ground and build trust.

Ultimately, Fuller and Gardner hope the project will become a demonstration site for other parts of the state with similar goals. What will it look like when the work is done? They are not sure—there are many options to explore—but their vision is a better-protected road for the island community; tidal marshes that will benefit native people, businesses, hunters, and fishermen; and a new public space that everyone can enjoy.

“This place is in the historic homelands of the Coast Salish people—especially the Samish Tribe—who maintained a large long house that provided shelter for hundreds of people on the island,” says Gardner. “We’re working with representatives of the Samish people to restore access to this site and some of the natural resources it once provided before farming began.”

The project will support young native salmon from multiple rivers, which depend on access to the tidal marshes and eelgrass habitats to build up size and strength before heading into open water. The region also is a big wintering zone for waterfowl—and hunting—and home to one of the largest heron nesting sites on the West Coast. Through the Reserve’s education programs, everyone will be able to visit the marshes, learn about their ecology, and enjoy their local revival.

Heron at Samish site.

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BILFinding Common Ground on Padilla Bay