Little estuary to see big restoration investment - Salish Current
April 25, 2021
Little estuary to see big restoration investment
Alex Meacham

Restoration plans call for establishing a fish-friendly estuary at Little Squalicum Park on Bellingham Bay, where currently the stream is routed through the confines of a concrete culvert.

photo: Amy Nelson © 2021
April 25, 2021
Little estuary to see big restoration investment
Alex Meacham


A small city park on Bellingham Bay will soon include a valuable asset for the local aquatic ecosystem.

The City of Bellingham has secured a third of the funding needed to establish an estuary at Little Squalicum Park, situated within the town’s northwestern corner near Bellingham Technical College and connected by trails with the more expansive Squalicum Creek Park inland. 

The Washington State Department of Ecology awarded the city a $1 million grant in late February for the Little Squalicum Estuary project, which has been in development since 2009. 

The project is slated to begin in 2022, after an additional $2 million in funding is secured. The City is optimistically awaiting word on pending grant applications with the state, including some which would become available in July, and has applied for local funding. The City itself is also planning to contribute several hundred thousand dollars.

The project will complete restoration of 4.85 acres of coastal wetlands habitat, by reestablishing a 2.4-acre estuary — transitional habitat linking land-based streams and saltwater that is crucial for spawning fish and vital to salmon recovery efforts. 

Unique and beautiful

“It’s a great location,” said Gina Austin, the City of Bellingham Parks Department project engineer who oversaw development of the original master plan approved in 2010. “Its beach is really beautiful … and I think that neighborhoods are just very supportive of the work that we did.”

The beach at Little Squalicum Park has become a popular walk site, particularly at low tide. (Mike Sato photo © 2021)

Bellingham Bay has lost an estimated 282 acres of intertidal estuary habitat over the last 150 years due to development, according to the project website. “There’s not a lot of room left, so this is a really unique opportunity,” said Analiese Burns, habitat and restoration manager for the City of Bellingham.

The Little Squalicum shoreline area has already seen some restoration. It had been designated a Superfund site, and a wood-treatment facility finished cleanup there in 2011 of toxic waste including creosote and pentachlorphenol (PCP).

Many of the park’s master plan goals were completed in 2011, Austin noted. The creek that runs through the park was rerouted, and the park was redesigned to match the master plan, reflecting changes made over the previous two years. Construction of the estuary is the next major step. 

Because the cost is just shy of $3 million, securing funds has been time-intensive, Burns said. The plan calls for the estuary project to be done in one phase, with Summer 2022 through Winter 2023 identified as the best timing. 

Money and materials

“The majority of the cost is [for] the actual excavation of material,” Burns said. The estuary will be a low area, where water from the creek and the bay can intermix. To remove that much material and dispose of it properly, she said, “takes a lot of money.” 

To establish habitat suitable for forage fish such as smelt and sand lance that spawn on beaches, the beach will require a specific kind of gravel to nourish the nearshore habitat, Burns said.

When the city excavates, they’ll keep what’s suitable for the specific needs of the estuary to reuse, but much material will be disposed of offsite.

The project will reroute the stream which currently is channeled through concrete culvert that acts as a fish barrier. 

A windsurfer gets an exhilarating ride on the waves off Little Squalicum Park on a windy April morning. (Amy Nelson photo © 2021)

Shade vegetation will be planted alongside the new estuary and the stream will be rerouted to ensure as much shaded habitat as possible, Burns said. Managers will monitor the site extensively, using techniques from snorkel surveys to water-quality sampling. 

A walk in the park

Walking through the park in 2022 will likely be much the same as it is today, Burns said. The trails will remain, and only the trail closest to the new estuary will be moved slightly to the west, she said.

As the plants around the estuary grow, people will be able to peek into the forested area around the site, and a short trail connection will cross over the mouth of the creek. Interpretative signs will explain the estuary and its benefits to the environment. 

Community partners including the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association are planning work parties during the work period and in future years to maintain the site as a healthy place for fish. 

“These habitats are pretty rare in Bellingham, so it’ll be fun to see something that changes with the tide,” Burns said.

— Reported by Alex Meacham

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