This month, biologists made an exciting discovery on a tributary of Washington's Grays River: thousands of chum salmon were swimming through a marsh that used to be pasture.
It didn't take the fish long to find the site after Columbia Land Trust breached a dike in 2004 and installed two large culverts to allow water back onto the 45-acre Kandoll Farm property, near Rosburg, Wash.
Now, juvenile chum are flooding in along with four other species of salmon.
"There are fish all over the marsh out there," said Curtis Roegner, a biologist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Hammond, who has sampled fish at the site since the breach. "This year is amazing because of the numbers of chum. We usually catch 300 the whole season. This time we caught 300 on one tide. It's truly astounding."
Roegner's data show the new habitat is serving its purpose, producing food and shelter for salmon smolts on their way out to the ocean.
But while scientists are documenting the benefits of the restoration project for fish and their habitat, some landowners in the area are stewing over the unintended consequences, such as the flooding of property next to the Kandoll Farm site and water damage to an adjacent county road.
As critics question the value of restoration efforts on the Grays River, a key question remains unanswered. How much are the region's many habitat enhancement projects contributing to the ultimate survival and recovery of threatened and endangered fish?
"That's the hardest thing - to start adding up these projects," said Ron Thom, a scientist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "What happens when they start acting together?"
Between now and 2011, Roegner, Thom and others will continue to sample the fish, organic matter and water quality at Kandoll Farm and other restoration sites as part of a cumulative effects monitoring project funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project, which is also employing the expertise of Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce (CREST), could help illustrate the larger significance of habitat restoration for salmon recovery plans in the Columbia River Basin.
A bigger pictureMany habitat restoration projects in the region are funded by the Corps and Bonneville Power Administration as mitigation for the Columbia River dams.
The federal agencies that manage the region's hydropower system are expecting habitat enhancement to produce measurable improvement in fish survival.
CREST Director Micah Russell said the Corps' cumulative effects study could help quantify the benefits of restoration.
The data from the study are showing that salmon are swimming back into restored marshes and eating insects that will strengthen them for their journey out to sea, he said.
"If we can plug that into a larger model, that will tell us over the next couple years whether or not these piecemeal projects in the estuary are adding up to some kind of enhanced survival benefit for salmon overall," said Russell.
The ongoing lawsuit over Columbia River dam mitigation has shined a spotlight on estuary restoration projects recently.
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden wants to know not just that the proposed restoration projects will happen, but how they compute in the larger salmon survival equation.
"With Judge Redden's questions, and survival benefits needing to be attributed to the estuary, the importance of this work is increasing," said Ian Sinks, stewardship manager for Columbia Land Trust.
Still learningThe Kandoll Farm project is just one of many efforts Columbia Land Trust is making to restore habitat and recover fish in the Grays River Valley, where the trust owns 930 acres in the tidal zone of the watershed and just bought another 305 acres of chum spawning habitat at the confluence of the Grays River and Crazy Johnson Creek.
The land trust's holdings have allowed multiple restoration projects to unfold along the Grays River, where fish habitat is fragmented and the waterway carries 10 times as much silt as it should because of runoff from logging and development on steep terrain.
The trust's habitat restoration experts predicted letting water back onto the pasture at Kandoll Farm would bring fish to some valuable new feeding and resting grounds. But they hadn't expected the water to bring so much trouble along with it.
A group of landowners in the Grays River Watershed Enhancement District, which functions much like a diking district to control flooding, has protested the restoration project, claiming it has negatively impacted 18 landowners.
"Everything you hear and read are glowing reports. However, that's not the truth," said Trudy Fredrickson, who works with the district. "A lot of people down there are in danger because of that dike removal and 13-foot culverts. The water is torrential during floods."
Diking district chair Delvin Fredrickson, who owns property along the Grays River, points to flaws in many of the land trust's restoration projects, which he said are not helping fish as much as they're hurting landowners by blocking water drainage and flooding properties surrounding dike breaches.
His district has resisted participating in a regional restoration planning process and tried unsuccessfully to assert its legal authority over restoration projects within its boundaries. Now, it's seeking proof that the land trust had the proper permits to do the work at Kandoll Farm.
Sinks said the land trust underestimated the impact of the Kandoll Farm dike breach and is working to solve the resulting water problems.
"We weren't providing tidal protection we thought we were," he said. "We're learning how to do hydrologic modeling better."