Pictured here is the new side channel habitat recently installed at our South Prairie Creek Preserve project just upstream from the recently acquired Soler Farm. As restoration efforts move forward, a similar side channel will be designed to reconnect 13-acres of the Soler Farm to it's natural floodplain, creating vital new salmon habitat and flood storage capacity, while keeping 60-acres in agricultural production.
Thanks to a grant from the Pierce County Flood Control Zone District and in partnership with the Puyallup Tribe Fisheries Department, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group, Forterra, and Surface Water Management, the Pierce Conservation District recently acquired the 73-acre Soler Farm to continue 20-years of effort to restore South Prairie Creek, one of the most important salmon streams in the area.
“This acquisition reflects the kind of multi-agency interest needed to accomplish large scale restoration projects and the tribe is delighted to partner with so many enthusiastic individuals,” said Puyallup Tribe Fisheries Director, Russ Ladley.
South Prairie Creek has a rich history of cultural significance going back thousands of years for the Coast Salish people. Not only is it one of the Puyallup watershed’s most productive salmon streams, South Prairie Creek is a place full of biological diversity such as elk, deer, numerous bird species and native plants. This diversity of life is what drew the Coast Salish people to the area to establish villages and thrive along the banks of this abundant stream.
More recent history has seen the area as an important agricultural zone for Pierce County, with several dairy operations thriving from the 1930s until the early 2000’s. However, as the farming families of this area have reached retirement age and the younger generation has moved on, an opportunity has emerged to rethink the way the watershed is used, restore some of the ecological complexity, and turn the area into a model for floodplain management that benefits fish and farms, while reducing flood risk for local residents.
“I had been praying for years that the District would buy the farm,” said Maureen Soler. “I grew up on a dairy and watched all of them disappear as development came in. I told my husband Gus years ago that we needed to preserve this place. In addition to keeping the farm, I knew the District would restore the habitat for salmon, elk, birds, and even Orcas. Gus was mesmerized by the Orcas and he would love it if the farm could help save them. I wanted to do this for the people of Pierce County, so they could have a place to come sit and enjoy it.”
The Soler Farm had been listed for sale for multiple years, but with and agricultural easement already on it, finding a funding source to turn it into a multi-benefit restoration project had proven difficult. These efforts were given a shot-in the arm during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Pierce County Flood Control Zone District announced an Economic Stimulus Grant in the fall of 2020.
“Pierce County Flood Control Zone District didn’t let the pandemic slow our work down,” said County Councilmember Dave Morell. “We funded flood redirection and watershed management economic stimulus grants. These grants were used for one-time projects to stimulate the local economy through capital or construction projects completed in budget year 2021. Pierce Conservation District applied and was awarded funding to assist with the purchase of Soler Farm. This purchase will implement a multi-benefit flood plain reconnection project that will reduce flood risk and maintenance costs, restore vital salmon habitat, and keep the property in agricultural production.”
Plans for the Soler Farm are to keep roughly 60-acres in farm production and restore 13-acres of side channel habitat and natural floodplain. Pierce Conservation District will continue working closely with project partners and the Haugen Family Farm, the last dairy in Pierce County, which has been leasing the farm for the last 5-years.
“As the last organic dairy farm in Pierce County, it’s good to know that the folks at Pierce Conservation District are willing to work with us and keep us farming in this area,” said BJ Haugen. “Without farmland being conserved like this, we couldn’t afford it and keep our farm growing.”
South Prairie Creek regularly floods, including as recently as February 2020, causing damage to both State Highway 162 and Pierce County roads. This is particularly true at Spring Site Road, where the creek makes two 90-degree turns crossing Hwy 162 and is tight lined to the highway adjacent to the Soler Farm.
“This is an opportunity to expand on the work that has occurred upstream and return more of South Prairie Creek to its historical form and function,” added Ladley. “The current situation where the creek is locked between two roads, funneled into a narrow bridge crossing and restricted from ever achieving a functional riparian zone is far from ideal. This will allow for the restoration of natural channel features including log jams, multilayered tree canopy, sinuosity and the habitat diversity needed to support all life stages of salmonid fishes. This is precisely the type of project opportunity needed to sustain our precious salmon resource.”
While it will be years in the making, next steps include removing buildings from the floodway that are no longer needed for agricultural production, designing a new side channel, and creating complex new salmon habitat that can help recover Endangered Species Act listed stocks of Chinook salmon, Steelhead, and Bull Trout. This will eliminate the two 90-degree bends where the creek crosses Hwy 162, both reducing factors that exacerbate the flooding and adding more storage capacity for flood waters.
Combined with the South Prairie Creek Preserve directly upstream, this project will create over a mile of new and complex habitat that will continue the efforts to build a new future at South Prairie Creek.