An Ecosystem Services Assessment of the Nisqually River Delta, South Puget Sound, Washington

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Overview of Nisqually River Delta ecosystem services modeling

The Nisqually River Delta, an estuary located at the southern end of Puget Sound in Washington State, has been the site of multiple restoration efforts aimed at converting diked farmland back to tidal marsh. As of 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) restored over 900 acres within the  Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  

Breaching dikes returned tidal exchange and flow of salt water to the marsh plain. It allowed regeneration of marsh vegetation, benefitting many species of plants, animals, and birds that reside in the refuge or use it as a migratory stopover. The FWS and US Geological Survey continue to monitor the restoration area and compare its recovery to historic marsh. The return of historic habitats also enhances the benefits that the marsh provides for visitors to the refuge and the local community.

Estuaries and their wildlife provide a multitude of benefits to people, collectively known as ecosystem services. In the Nisqually River Delta. We are conducting an ecosystem services assessment including economic valuation that considers tribal and commercial fisheries, climate regulation through carbon sequestration, and wildlife watching (birdwatching). We are estimating ecosystem services provided under current conditions (i.e., a present-day baseline) and we are comparing changes in services across multiple sea level rise and management scenarios. We will also consider the change in services before and after the 2009 restoration project. The assessment will consider the mosaic of habitats within the Delta, including tidal forest and tidal marsh, which are important habitat for salmon that represent substantial carbon stocks. By using an approach that centers on ecosystem services, we can translate how changes in ecological function can impact the flows of benefits to people.

A conceptual model of ecosystem services for the wetland habitats of Nisqually River Delta.

A conceptual model of ecosystem services for the wetland habitats of Nisqually River Delta. Exogenous factors influence the quality and quantity of wetland habitat. This, in turn, controls the many functions that occur within wetlands. Ecosystem services, or benefits to people, are derived from the ability of wetlands to perform critical ecological functions.

(Public domain.) Credit Tony Good, USGS

We will develop biophysical and economic models to quantify the level of benefits derived from estuarine habitats and use non-market valuation methods to estimate societal value of these services. Our research will directly inform the managers of Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually NWR as they prepare their Climate Change Adaptation Plan by estimating the provision of ecosystem services and their benefits to people under sea-level rise scenarios. We will conduct workshops with land managers across the Puget Sound region to develop an approach to transfer tools from this research to other estuaries and scale the ecosystem service assessment to a larger area. This work received funding from the USGS LandCarbon Program, the USGS Land Change Science Program and USGS Northwest Climate Adaptation Center.

Carousel image of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

Panoramic views of tidal marsh at Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge under an overcast sky.

(Credit: Ryan Munes, US Fish and Wildlife Serice. Public domain.)

More about work in the Nisqually River Delta, check on the following links:

Marsh Elevation Change and Carbon Sequestration

Fisheries and Fish Habitat

Recreational Bird Watching and Habitat

USGS Research Team

  • Kristin Byrd, USGS WGSC, Moffett Field, CA – Project lead
  • Monica Moritch, USGS WGSC, Moffett Field, CA – Ecosystem services modeling postdoctoral research ecologist
  • Travis Poitras, USGS WGSC, Moffett Field, CA – GIS analyst
  • Emily Pindilli, USGS Science and Decisions Center (SDC), Reston, VA – Economics lead
  • Anthony Good, USGS SDC, Reston, VA – Ecosystem services and economic analysis
  • Isa Woo, USGS Western Ecological Research Center (WERC), Moffett Field, CA – Salmon/food web lead, Nisqually datasets, liaison with Refuge and Nisqually Tribe
  • Melanie Davis, USGS WERC, Olympia, WA – Habitat modeling
  • Susan De La Cruz, USGS WERC, Moffett Field, CA – Project management
  • Lisamarie Windham-Myers, USGS Water Mission Area, Menlo Park, CA – Blue carbon lead, liaison with PNW Blue Carbon Working Group
  • Frank Casey, USGS SDC, Reston, VA – Advisor on economic analysis


  • James Morris, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC – Collaborator on Marsh Equilibrium Model design
  • Ken Krauss, USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center, Lafayette, LA – Collaborator on modeling change to freshwater forested habitat
  • Judith Drexler, USGS California Water Science Center, Sacramento, CA – Collaborator on tidal marsh soil carbon storage and accretion
  • Eric Grossman, USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center (PCMSC), Bellingham, WA – Collaborator on Delft3D hydrodynamic modeling
  • Dan Nowacki, USGS PCMSC, Santa Cruz, CA – Collaborator on Delft3D hydrodynamic modeling
  • John Rybczyk and Katrina Poppe, Western Washington University – Collaborator on tidal forest soil carbon storage
  • James Holmquist, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Edgewater, MD – Collaborator on Marsh Equilibrium Model R testing
  • James Losee, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, WA – Collaborator on historic fisheries modeling

This work was supported by the USGS LandCarbon Program, the Land Change Science Program, and the Northwest Climate Adaptation Center.