Floodplain restoration project to be ‘game-changer’ for refuge

On-site work under way; celebration event planned

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Workers spray reed canary grass at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where a floodplain restoration project is expected to create what one Fish and Wildlife official recently called "world-class wildlife viewing opportunities." (Contributed photo courtesy of Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership)

With the start of on-site activity, a critical infusion of funding and an upcoming celebration event, the Steigerwald Floodplain Restoration Project is gaining momentum in its early stages.

The collaborative project will reconfigure the Port of Camas-Washougal’s existing Columbia River levee system to reduce flood risk, reconnect 960 acres of Columbia River floodplain and increase recreation opportunities at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW).

“This project will open up 1,000 acres of habitat for migrating fish,” said Debrah Marriott, executive director of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (LCEP), a Portland-based environmental protection nonprofit coalition of public and private groups that is overseeing the project. “At the same time, it will help reduce the impact from flooding and improve recreational and educational opportunities for the community. Not too many projects accomplish that many diverse goals. Plus the project will create 400-plus jobs to help the local economy.”

The Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards will host a “Restoration Celebration” event from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3 at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The event will feature walks focusing on birds, tracking and mammals, photography and restoration. Pre-registration for the walks is required via

“We just want people to enjoy the refuge, see what it is now and let them know what to expect in the coming years as construction begins,” steward Brette Greenwood-Wing said. “(The walks are) an easy way to give people a tactile and visual representation of the animals that call the refuge home and allow people to celebrate the variety of wildlife found on the refuge. Two of the walks are going to be about the project itself and show where the problems are now and how the reconnection of the river will impact the views and the trail.”

On July 5, the LCEP received word that the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had decided to fund the project after completing an environmental review. The BPA’s contribution will be about 80 percent of the $22 million project, according to Chris Collins, a principal restoration ecologist for LCEP. USFW is also funding the project, and the Washington Department of Ecology awarded the project with a $4.6 million grant last year.

The project will help improve water quality and habitat to benefit steelhead and cutthroat trout; Chinook, coho, and chum salmon; and Pacific and western brook lamprey, according to BPA’s website.

“We never made the assumption that the (BPA) funding would be there,” Marriott said. “We had to meet several milestones for the BPA to make that final determination. At our last review, we were holding our breath. The numbers had to pencil out for them as far as the fish recovery and the cost of the project. I think they were pleased that Floodplains by Design came in to partner with us for some of the elements that BPA couldn’t fund. (When we heard about the BPA funding), it was a big sigh of relief.”

Last month, LCEP and USFW employees mowed and sprayed reed canary grass along the alluvial fan site of the Gibbons Creek Art Trail. Reed canary grass is particularly adept at outcompeting native vegetation.

“We’re prepping the surface so when we go to plant native plants like willows and cottonwoods and ash, they will have a much higher chance of success,” Collins said. “We’ll continue that through the end of the summer. In September and early October we’ll put in wooden log habitat structures because it will be important for the creek to establish itself as part of the refuge, as well as the fish that use that part of the stream. Then this winter we’ll plant the 53 acres with a mix of native plants.”

The project will reconnect Gibbons Creek to the Columbia River by breaching a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ levee; remove a diversion structure, fish ladder, elevated channel, and water control structure; raise Washington State Highway 14; construct a setback levee; enhance approximately two miles of wetland channels; and re-establish the site’s riparian forest, according to the BPA. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2022.

Several organizations and agencies, including the Port of Camas-Washougal, the Washington Department of Transportation and the city of Washougal, have worked closely with LCEP and USFW on the project.

Christopher Lapp of USFW said that the project “has success written all over it” because of the strong level of cooperation between the organizations.

“This is not bulletproof, and there will be issues and complexities that we’ll have to overcome,” he said. “But there is so much synergy around this project, and everybody believes in the concept and the vision. At no time in my career have I seen a project close to functioning in this way.”

Collins praised “the great relationships” between all of the organizations and landowners.

“They all want to see the ecological, educational and flood protection benefits,” he said. “There’s been challenges, but people have done a good job of keeping the end goal and the big picture in mind and working with us to address concerns.”

Right now people are especially concerned about refuge closures, Collins said.

“This year there will be some short-term, intermittent closures of the main parking lot and area right around the Gibbons Creek diversion structure,” he said. “Next year the main refuge parking lot will be closed for the entire year, but people will be able to access the refuge from the west. In 2021, the big year for construction, the refuge will be closed.”

Lapp said the new-look refuge could roughly compare in design to Sandy River Delta Park in Troutdale, Oregon, and the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge in Ilwaco, Washington, but on a much larger scale.

“The size of this project, that’s what’s going to be prominent,” he said. “Some sites out there have done similar work, but in order to visualize the magnitude of (this project), you have to take those sites and extrapolate the number of acres, which is pretty significant.”

Lapp said the project will be “a game-changer” for the area in terms of recreational and educational opportunities.

“Visiting the refuge now is a quality experience, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “We’ll take what we have right now and improve on it. This project is going to bring, in my opinion, world-class wildlife viewing opportunities. I think it’s going to be spectacular.”