Titlow Estuary’s future is headed in right direction

Jun 15th, 2020 | By | Category: News

In another step in recovering natural habitat and improving local watersheds, the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board has awarded a $150,000 grant to assist in design and initial planning for the restoration of the Titlow Estuary in Tacoma.

Known to many as the “duck pond” at Titlow Park, the estuary was once a self-sustaining tidal embayment that teemed with trout and migrating salmon in the lagoon and connected creeks draining into the shoreline along the Tacoma Narrows in Puget Sound.

However, railroad builders mostly filled the narrow passage into the small inlet in 1911 when they placed tracks that run within feet of the Puget Sound shoreline, leaving only a three-foot culvert to drain fresh water that flows into the lagoon, but blocked fish migration and most of the natural tidal action. And in the 1950s it was sealed on occasion to create a public “swimming pool” that resulted in an overabundance of waterfowl, more algae, and conditions that eliminated most salmon and trout species there.

“Though unsuitable now, the estuary can be restored with proper planning and funds,” said Kristin Williamson, a salmon restoration biologist with the Sound Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group (SPSSEG) that was awarded the grant last December to develop designs and permits to restore the natural salt marsh estuary and improve water quality.

As part of the grant, SPSSEG will coordinate with the City of Tacoma and Metropolitan Parks Tacoma that will also contribute $27,000 to the effort to develop plans to replace the fish-blocking culvert with multiple rail and pedestrian bridges.

“This is a good step, but it is a long-term process before it’s completed,” Williamson said of the project that can take 10 to 20 years to complete the project.

Final cost to restore the estuary could range between $3 million to $10 million or more, depending on the scope of the project, which now calls for replacing the 102-feet-long culvert with a 96-foot rail span bridge, and removing fill and park infrastructure from the lagoon edges to increase the lagoon size.

Plans also call to work with the City of Tacoma to improve water-quality through green infrastructure and stormwater treatment. Sidewalks, trails and public areas would also be improved.

At the point final designs and permits are finalized, the more critical issues will be funding available at the time and most likely involve both the Department of Transportation and the railroad.

“That’s why it takes so long before we see the results of our work,” Williamson said.

Though it may take a decade or two before a specific project comes to fruition, Williams said efforts are  “heading in the right direction” as far as funding and awareness of environmental issues, water resources, and recovery of natural habitat.

For example, the State Salmon Funding Recovery Funding Board was created under the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office in 1999 to specifically recover and restore dwindling salmon resources.

And, in the past 20 years, the state Recreation and Conservation Office estimates the Funding Board has awarded 3,093 grants and surpassed the $1 billion investment mark in the past 20 years to  correct 713 barriers to migrating fish, giving salmon access to 2,082 miles of habitat; conserve 537 miles of streams; restore more than 48,500 acres of shorelines, estuaries, wetlands, and other stream habitat; and clear more than 17,700 acres of land along rivers, wetlands, and estuaries of invasive species.

“The culverts and pipes that carry streams under roads and railways often block fish migration because they are too small or too steep for fish to swim through easily,” Williamson said of structures constructed 50 to 100 years old, many now failing.

Besides removing barriers to migrating fish, significant funds are also spent to purchase and restore shorelines and wetlands.

“Of course, there is never enough funding, but we are making good progress as compared to 50 years or even 30 years ago,” before serious efforts began to restore and recover natural habitat, Williamson said.

A big part in those efforts came in 1990 when the state created 14 Regional Enhancement Groups (RFEGs), including the SPSSEG to specifically work with local, state and federal agencies, Native American tribes, citizen groups and landowners in salmon recovery efforts

The SPSSEG service area includes six Water Resource Inventory Areas (WRIA’s), or watersheds as defined by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and generally includes Pierce, Thurston, and Mason counties.

Steve Kruse, who wrote this article, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Senior Scene.

This is the second in a series of articles sponsored by the City of Tacoma, its Environmental Services Department, and the Make a Splash grant program.

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