Little Squalicum Estuary

Project Overview

The Little Squalicum Estuary project (EN052) in Little Squalicum Park will help improve water quality and restore essential coastal habitat that has been lost to development by creating an estuary and removing a fish passage barrier. This project fulfills a community vision for the site in the 2010 Little Squalicum Park Master Plan.

Graphic from the Little Squalicum Park Master Plan created in 2010 that shows where the new estuary and trails will be located. Click on image to open larger version.

Project Status – June 2023

Construction Impacts

Project construction resumed in mid-May 2023. Pile driving for the new estuary outlet will continue through June. Please expect loud noise during this time. All heavy construction is expected to wrap up and full public access to the park restored by the end of September 2023. Planting of the site will continue through early 2024. Sign up for email updates on current Public Works projects.

Construction site with construction equipment including an excavator and trucks. Family of deer crossing through the site.
Little Squalicum Estuary construction site. June 2023.

During construction, the trails within the project site in Little Squalicum Park are temporarily inaccessible, though there is currently limited beach access from West Illinois Street. The park will remain open on the land (north) side of Marine Drive, with access from Bellingham Technical College and West Illinois. Signs are posted in the park to indicate areas that are inaccessible.

Aerial view of Little Squalicum Park. Construction zone in south side of park is highlighted in red. Beach area remains open and can be accessed by upper park trail.
Map of Little Squalicum Park and Beach access as of June 1, 2023. There may be times when trail and beach access are temporarily inaccessible.

More Information

Project Elements

The project will restore 4.85 total acres of coastal habitat including a 2.4-acre estuary, and will remove a fish passage barrier at the mouth of Little Squalicum Creek just two miles east of the Nooksack River Delta. The Nooksack provides critical habitat for all five Pacific salmon species. The estuary is expected to be used by juvenile (young) salmon originating from the lower Nooksack basin (Bellingham Bay, Squalicum Creek, and the Nooksack River). The project includes excavating the estuary, re-aligning the existing creek and trail, installing native plants, and installing a new pedestrian bridge and culvert.

Construction of this project is particularly complex because it is near a railroad trestle and involves coordination between several landowners and funding agencies. Additionally, since this project includes work within a stream that can support fish, any in-water work is limited to an approved work window put in place by the State for fish protection.


This project was first proposed as part of the 2010 Little Squalicum Park Master Plan, which was a collaborative project between City staff, public and private organizations, and the Bellingham community. Since then, City staff have been working with landowners, permitting and funding agencies, and other groups to secure funding, permits, and permissions to allow this project to happen. Construction first began in June 2022 with excavation of the future estuary and was delayed in late 2022 while waiting for approval from BNSF of a re-design of the channel connecting the estuary to Bellingham Bay. Construction resumed in May 2023.

  • May 2022 – Public Open House
  • City hosts informational open house for community members interested in learning more about the project. Approximately 100 attendees.
  • May 2022 – Contract awarded
  • Construction contract of $3,474,179.48 awarded by City Council to Glacier Environmental Services.
  • June 2022Construction begins
  • January 2023 – Community work party
  • 232 volunteers joined the City of Bellingham, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Assocation (NSEA), and many other community partners for the City’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service work party at the Little Squalicum Estuary. Approximately 4,500 native plants were planted at this event.
  • January 2023 Construction delay announced
  • Project construction delayed while a modification to the channel design is confirmed with Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway. Construction will resume as permits and weather allow.
  • May 2023 – Construction resumes
  • September 2023 – Construction mostly complete
  • Heavy construction is expected to be complete and full park access restored by end of September.
  • Early 2024 – Site planting complete
  • Native planting at the project site expected to be complete.

A contract for the construction of this project was awarded to Glacier Environmental Services in May 2022 for $3,474,179.48. Project funding is from:

  • City of Bellingham
  • Greenways Levy
  • Washington Department of Ecology Centennial Clean Water Program
  • Washington Department of Ecology One-Time Grant Program
  • Washington State Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account Grant Program
  • Washington State Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service National Coastal Wetland Conservation Grant Program
  • Port of Bellingham
  • Whatcom County
  • Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA)

A special thanks to Lehigh Northwest Cement Company, Port of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and BNSF for their coordination on this project.

Department of Ecology logo. An outline of Washington state with a yellow sun, blue sky, green mountain range, and dark blue water.
Green triangle logo that says Greenway Funded Project - City of Bellingham, Parks and Recreation Department.

Will the beach be inaccessible during construction?

The beach will be inaccessible at times, but not for the entire project duration. Beach accessibility will depend on current construction conditions.

The beach and lower Little Squalicum Park may be temporarily inaccessible during construction both in front of the park and north through the beach nourishment area (northwest of the pier) as we construct the estuary outlet and add nourishment to improve forage fish habitat. Some areas will remain open when practical, including the beach.

We must construct this project during the summer because permitting limits construction to specific “fish windows” to protect forage fish, salmon and other fish species as well as water quality. During the beach work, you can access Locust Beach as an alternative beach, which is approximately 1.4 miles away from the project site.

Will dogs still be allowed off-leash in the park?

The City-managed Little Squalicum Park (the area from the railroad trestle and north) is designated as an off-leash dog park. The beach is owned by the Port of Bellingham and is currently designated as an on-leash dog area. The project will not change either of these designations.

During construction, dogs and people can access the northern portion of the park (adjacent to BTC parking lot) and will have limited access to the southern portion of the park (water side of Marine Drive), depending on current construction conditions.

After construction is complete, dogs will continue to be allowed off-leash in areas of the park per City policy PAR 3.01.20 except within the sensitive estuary habitat, which will be protected by a low fence. Please help steward the new estuary by keeping people and dogs out of this fragile area.

How will this project change Little Squalicum Park?

After construction, the southern field and forest adjacent to the beach will become the estuary. A small field area will be provided for recreation and the field just to the north (near Bellingham Technical College) will remain unchanged. Some vegetation will be impacted during construction of the new estuary, but new plants will be added. All existing trails in the project area will be shifted west to accommodate the estuary footprint, and a new trail network and pedestrian bridge will be installed at the estuary mouth.

Graphic from the Little Squalicum Park Master Plan created in 2010 that shows where the new estuary and trails will be located. Click on image to open larger version.

How will this project enhance habitat?

This project will restore tidal and sedimentary processes, improve fish passage, and return saltmarsh, mudflat and estuary habitats to an area where historical wetlands have been lost. Over the past 150 years, Bellingham Bay has lost an estimated 282 acres of aquatic land as the result of historical dredging, filling, and shoreline modification activities, drastically reducing rearing habitat available to local salmonid populations. Due to an increasingly urbanized shoreline with competing uses such as marinas, industry, and railways, the WRIA 1 Nearshore and Estuarine Assessment and Restoration Plan identified Little Squalicum as one of the last remaining locations available for estuary habitat expansion in WRIA 1. 

Features of the new 2.4-acre estuary include a vegetated saltmarsh as well as native vegetation around the estuary that will help cool and filter freshwater entering Bellingham Bay. The project will also include “beach nourishment,” which consists of installing new gravel along the shoreline to enhance tidal processes and provide habitat for spawning forage fish. Surf smelt – a type of forage fish – have been documented nearby, and this project aims to expand spawning gravels available for these and other forage fish species. Forage fish provide the foundation for local marine food webs and are an especially important food source for salmon (Nearshore Juvenile Chinook Study, Beamer et al, 2015).

Project elements include removing 50 linear feet of shoreline barrier, installing 1.2 acres of saltmarsh and riparian plantings, and enhancing 1.16 acres of forage fish spawning habitat. As part of the estuary excavation, the project includes removal of contaminated material.

What can I do to help care for the new estuary habitat?

  • Help steward the sensitive new estuary and plantings by staying on designated trails and recreation areas, and guiding pets to do the same.
  • Bag and dispose of pet waste in trash both at home and away.
  • Restore native vegetation at planting parties organized by the City of Bellingham and local organizations. We will be hosting a volunteer work party in 2023 after the estuary is constructed. Sign up for our Habitat News email list to receive updates about this project, similar projects, and the planned volunteer work party.

Is the City removing the pier as part of the Little Squalicum Estuary project?

As a separate project, the City is working on opening a portion of the pier to public access in the future. The outer 600 feet of the pier will be removed. Approximately 1200 linear feet of the pier will be retained for public use.

What is the Port of Bellingham’s Little Squalicum Habitat Beach Project?

In the same vicinity of the Little Squalicum Estuary project was the Port’s Little Squalicum Habitat Beach Project, which began construction mid-summer 2022 and is now complete. This project improves fish habitat by removing industrial fill from historic tidelands. To learn more, visit the Port’s Capital Project Highlights Map and view the first project under the “Public Priorities” tab, or email

Find answers to additional questions in the Project FAQ.

Construction Photos


Freeman Anthony, P.E.
Project Engineer
Phone: (360) 778-7924

Analiese Burns, Habitat and Restoration Manager
Phone: (360) 778-7968
Email: ​​

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