Celebrate American Wetlands Month: Nature’s Unsung Heroes

Steven SchauerUncategorized

By Steven Schauer, Deputy Executive Director

May is American Wetlands Month, a time to celebrate these amazing ecosystems that are often undervalued. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined forces with federal, state, tribal, local governments, non-profit organizations, and private businesses to establish American Wetlands Month. This annual celebration aims to educate the public about the critical importance of wetlands, which are the vital link between land and water, providing a wealth of benefits for both nature and people.

A Haven for Wildlife

Wetlands restoration at the Lower Russell Levee Setback Project. Credit: King County.

Historically, wetlands were seen as wastelands and people drained them for development and agricultural purposes. Now, we understand their crucial role. Wetlands are teeming with a diversity of life. They offer essential habitat for a variety of plants and animals. From fish and amphibians to birds and insects, wetlands provide a place to raise young, find food, and rest during migrations. In addition to being incredibly important to many migratory bird species, wetlands are the exclusive home to more than one-third of the threatened and endangered species found throughout the United States.

Here in the Puget Sound region, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Threatened Chinook salmon rely on freshwater streams, estuaries, and wetlands during their early life (Image: Chinook juvenile salmon. Credit: King County). The Chinook salmon then become a primary food source for the ESA Endangered Southern Resident killer whale. As a clear demonstration of the interconnectedness of nature, healthy wetlands directly and indirectly provide benefits to two ESA listed species in our area!

Benefits for People Too

Wetlands aren’t just green infrastructure providing healthy habitat for plants and animals; they’re good for us too! They help ensure clean drinking water and provide vital flood protection by absorbing excess rainwater and runoff. Acting like a natural sponge capturing storm- and flood water, wetlands can offer vital protection to homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure. Wetlands also provide recreational opportunities like areas for trails, birdwatching, and fishing.

Lower Russell Levee Setback Project

Clearly, wetlands provide great benefits to our shared natural environment and our communities. While the King County Flood Control District (KCFCD) is committed to protecting our communities from flooding, we recognize the vital importance of wetlands as a natural solution for flood mitigation as well as for the other benefits they provide our communities and environment. A wonderful example of this commitment is the Lower Russell Levee Setback Project.

Lower Russell Levee Setback Project. Credit: City of Kent.

The $58 million Lower Russell Levee Setback Project, located in the City of Kent, improved flood protection by replacing and upgrading 1.4 miles of existing levee and revetment with a new flood containment system that meets current engineering design standards and is built to a 0.2 percent annual chance (a.k.a., a 500-year) flood event. This level of flood risk reduction is important given the area protected by the new flood containment system supports one-eighth of the state’s Gross Domestic Product. The Lower Russell Levee Setback Project has another economic benefit as it was designed to reduce long-term maintenance costs as well.

Beyond flood protection, the project brought significant ecological benefits. Setting back the levee reconnected over 40 acres of floodplain. Here, over 30 acres of trees and shrubs were planted to shade the river, improving salmon habitat. Additionally, 18 acres were specifically designed to provide rearing and refuge areas for juvenile Chinook salmon and steelhead. This new habitat, featuring large wood elements, functions much like a wetland – a cause for celebration during American Wetlands Month!

Wetlands restoration with large wood elements at the Lower Russell Levee Setback Project. Credit: King County.

Additionally, riverine habitat was also improved with wood and pools, which were specifically designed to create eddy currents in the river for aquatic benefit as well as to honor and restore traditional tribal fishing locations (Image: King County staff at constructed pool/eddy feature. Credit: King County). The expertise of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe was utilized in both project design and archaeological review to help ensure the project respected the site’s cultural significance. The area continues to hold cultural importance and now, in addition to the fishing eddies, the area features multiple learning sites and cooking stations specifically designed for tribal use.

The Lower Russell Levee Setback Project did even more than protect life and property with the new levee system, reestablish critical salmon habitat, and restore cultural tribal connections. The project also complemented existing parks, trails, and open space by interweaving with the Green River Trail and renewal of Van Doren’s Landing Park, which now includes a restroom, two park shelters, parking, horseshoe pits, public art, a large playfield, viewing tower, first foods cooking area, pickleball court, wiffleball field, an historic barn, and an ADA accessible playground complete with a zipline, swings, spinner, and a scaled, climbable replica of Mount Rainier with on-grade slides. The seamless integration of the levee setback, habitat restoration, cultural connections, and park revitalization creates a unified landscape that offers opportunities for active and passive recreation, learning, and tribal uses while at the same time providing vital flood protection and restoring critical salmon habitat.

Van Dorens Landing Grand Opening. Credit: City of Kent.

Successful Collaboration

The KCFCD funded a significant portion ($48 million) of the $58 million project. Additional funding came from various grants, including a $4.9 million Floodplains by Design grant from the state Department of Ecology, a $4.8 million Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Large Capital Projects grant from the Salmon Recovery Funding Board through the state Recreation and Conservation Office, and $300,000 from a Cooperative Watershed Management grant from the KCFCD.

Beyond securing multi-partner funding, a large-scale project like the Lower Russell Levee Setback Project requires the collaboration of many. This includes close cooperation between different agencies and the active participation of interested parties and citizens. Collaboration for this project involved strong commitment from the elected officials and dedicated work by the staff of the KCFCD, City of Kent, King County (DNRP constructed the project as service provider to the KCFCD), Muckleshoot, Snoqualmie, and Tulalip Tribes, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, Washington Department of Ecology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, WRIA 9 Salmon Recovery (Habitat Work Group), and other environmental interests, such as the Green River Natural Resources Area and Rainier Audubon.

KCFCD Chair Reagan Dunn speaking at the Lower Russell Levee Setback Project Grand Opening. Credit: City of Kent.

If you missed the project’s June 28, 2023 Grand Opening Celebration, you can watch a video of the event here.

Let’s Celebrate and Protect Wetlands

American Wetlands Month is a chance to learn more about these wetlands and take action to protect them. By appreciating the value of wetlands, we can ensure these vital ecosystems continue to thrive for generations to come.

There are many ways to get involved, such as attending educational events, volunteering with wetland restoration projects, or going out to visit the Lower Russell Levee Setback Project and Van Doren’s Landing Park so you can see firsthand an exceptional example of multibenefit project implementation which includes flood risk reduction, habitat (and wetlands) restoration, cultural connections, and recreational amenities.