Healing Washougal’s watershed

Project calls for more native vegetation along ‘impaired’ stretch of lower Washougal River

Tom Dwyer, program coordinator of the Vancouver Watersheds Alliance, stands on the boat launch ramp in lower Hathaway Park to look at residential properties across the Washougal River. He is informing homeowners who live along the river about a grant program that reimburses them for some of the costs involved in adding native plantings to their yards.

An effort to improve the quality of the lower Washougal River and its salmon habitats could pay some homeowners to plant native vegetation and create “rain gardens” along the river’s edge.

The Vancouver Watersheds Alliance is asking homeowners with property along the lower Washougal River to participate in the voluntary streamside enhancement program, which seeks to increase the number of native plants, trees and shrubs along the shoreline and create rain gardens to reduce runoff into the river.

The project could help improve an impaired stretch of the river, which runs through the heart of Washougal.

The 2010 Clark County Storm Water Needs Assessment characterized the condition of the lower Washougal River as degraded aquatic habitat, due to loss of forest and the amount of impervious surface. Six years earlier, the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board Habitat Assessment rated the riparian conditions in the lower Washougal watershed as “impaired.”

Tom Dwyer, a Camas resident who works part-time as a program coordinator for the Vancouver Watersheds Alliance, has talked with about a dozen homeowners so far, and said eight of them are going through the sign-up process.

Dwyer said homeowners who use herbicides or pesticides in their yards can help prevent the toxins from entering the river by establishing an area of healthy, native vegetation close to the river.

“Native vegetation can filter out herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer before (they reach) the water, helping to improve water quality,” Dwyer said. “Native vegetation is more resistant to pests and plant diseases, and this generally reduces the need for pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer.”

During a recent visit to lower Hathaway Park, Dwyer looked across the Washougal River and pointed out large lawns with insufficient amounts of native vegetation to filter chemical contaminants.

“That whole stretch can benefit from the addition of woody vegetation — native trees and shrubs,” he said, pointing to one property.

Native plants include snowberry, Oregon grape, Nootka rose, salmonberry, twinberry honeysuckle, ninebark and thimbleberry. Vine maple, red alder, black cottonwood and bigleaf maple are among native trees varieties that do well in Southwest Washington.

Forestation makes riverbanks more stable and provides shade, according to Dwyer.

“Shade is good for fish,” he said. “Salmon love cool water.”

For homeowners who want to sit along the Washougal River and have an unobstructed view of the water, Dwyer said he can help them design the right type of native plantings so they still have a river view.

“The people I have talked to appreciate the fact that they live along a beautiful river and want to keep it in a healthy condition,” he said. “They understand how fortunate they are to have riverfront property.”

The Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board provided a grant for the Lower Washougal Streamside Enhancement program, using money from the Clark County Clean Water Restoration Fund.

Project coordinators now have enough money to partially reimburse 30 property owners up to $1,600 for the cost of adding native plantings and rain gardens to their riverside properties.

Rain gardens collect, absorb and filter stormwater runoff from roofs, driveways, patios and other hard surfaces that do not allow water to soak in.

To qualify for reimbursement, the properties need to be adjacent to the river and the property owners need to save their receipts. Reimbursement can pay for the addition of mulch and native vegetation, as well as the removal of invasive plants.

For more information about the Lower Washougal Streamside Enhancement program, call Dwyer at 360-852-9189, email him at tom@vancouverwatersheds.org or visit vancouverwatersheds.org.