On a newly constructed bridge over Illabot Creek east of Rockport, county employees and other stakeholders marked Wednesday the completion of a fish habitat restoration project.
The three-phase project has been in the making since 2001 when planning began. The project will restore habitat for several species, including threatened chinook salmon and steelhead trout.
Illabot Creek, which meets the Skagit River between Rockport and Marblemount, received federal designation in 2014 under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
The creek is known to support all five Pacific salmon species as well as the region’s steelhead.
It was selected for this project based partially on its productivity, said Steve Hinton, restoration program director with the Skagit River System Cooperative.
“This is a place we could actually make a difference,” he said.
The $5.3 million project involved building a temporary detour around Rockport Cascade Road where it crosses Illabot Creek, building two new bridges and restoring habitat in the creek upstream and downstream of the road.
The purpose of the project — a partnership between the Skagit River System Cooperative and Skagit County — is to restore the creek by reconnecting it with its historic channels.
Before it was diked into a relatively straight path under Rockport Cascade Road decades ago, Illabot Creek would slightly change its course or form new channels over the years, according to project documents.
Historical maps from the 1940s to the 1960s show the creek previously curved and branched off in different directions, having a slightly different path when documented each time in 1944, 1956 and 1963.
Forcing the creek under one bridge limited the habitat available to the fish, Hinton said.
It created a larger, faster moving body of water which carried away silty salmon spawning habitat and didn’t allow toxins to filter through the ground, said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership.
“What was documented here is an interruption in ecological process that handcuffed this river in doing everything it could to produce salmon for the Skagit (River),” he said.
Once rains begin and the creek rises, it will separate into channels that are directed under the new bridges on Rockport Cascade Road, project engineer Paul DeVries said. Over time, erosion will allow the creek to shift its course naturally as it did in the mid-1900s.
“Basically we’re just going to let the river do what it’s meant to do,” DeVries said. “We’re just here to nudge it along.”