Several years ago, Washougal Mayor Molly Coston, then the president of the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards, was approached by Chris Collins of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (LCEP), a Portland-based environmental protection nonprofit coalition of public and private groups.
Collins told Coston about the agency’s plan to reconfigure the Port of Camas-Washougal’s existing Columbia River levee system to reduce flood risk, re-connect 960 acres of Columbia River floodplain and increase recreation opportunities at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Coston was skeptical, to say the least.
“I said, ‘This is a crazy project. It will never happen,'” Coston said at the Steigerwald Floodplain Restoration Project Sept. 5 groundbreaking ceremony at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. “The federal permitting alone, I thought, would knock it dead in its tracks.”
Before grabbing shovels to dig holes in the ground at the site’s diversion structure, several key stakeholders spoke about the importance of the cooperation between the involved agencies, including the Port, city of Washougal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and LCEP.
“We know that to achieve success, especially at this level, it definitely takes a collaborative effort and a diverse set of partnerships,” said Christopher Lapp of USFW. “I’ve been with the refuge system for over 25 years, and I’ve done a lot of projects, and I haven’t come close to seeing the efficiency and the vision that everybody’s brought into this. It’s a once-in-a-career type of experience that I truly do cherish.”
Proponents of the project said the Port will see reduced flood risk to its industrial park; USFW will see improved ecological function; the Gorge Refuge Stewards will boost their community involvement and public education efforts; the Bonneville Power Administration will generate migration credits for the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion; WSDOT will see reduced flood risk to Highway 14; and the city of Washougal will see a reduced flood risk to its wastewater treatment plants and residential housing as well as a boost in local tourism.
“Many, many people provided hundreds and hundreds of hours to the project,” said Debrah Marriott, executive director of LCEP. “Everyone seemed to have a slightly different need, surprisingly. (But) everyone is contributing in every way they can, which is really pretty unique.”
U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat who represents Oregon, told the crowd that as the co-chair of the House Oceans Caucus and Congressional Estuary Caucus, “projects like this are really at the forefront of the work that I do.”
“A recent report found there’s about (one) million animal and plant species that are at risk of extinction, more than any other period in human history,” Bonamici said. “We must address this biodiversity crisis, which of course is connected with climate change. Habitat restoration projects like this help. The project will benefit the entire estuary ecosystem and therefore the entire region. A project of this scale is going to bring significant economic benefits as well — jobs, recreation and tourism.”
Port chief executive officer David Ripp said the Port will benefit in several different ways from the project, which should eliminate overflowing at Gibbons Creek, an issue that has caused flooding in the Port’s stormwater system.
“We’ve been trying to pump that water out,” Ripp said. “Imagine leaving the spigot on while you’re trying to drain your bathtub.”
The $25 million restoration project, which began in 2013, is on track to be completed in 2021. The groundbreaking ceremony was held to commemorate the start of the construction portion of the project.
“I want to reemphasize what we collectively have accomplished. That’s one-and-a-half square miles of floodplain that’s going to be resorted adjacent to a major metropolitan area. That’s an incredible opportunity,” Collins said. “After six years of planning and design and talking, I’m really excited to stop talking and go dig a hole.”
Several dignitaries, including Coston, Bonamici, Ripp, Devin Reck of WSDOT, Gorge Refuge Stewards President Dave Pinkernell, Washington Rep. Sharon Wylie, and representatives for U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler put shovels in the ground several minutes later.
“I still (come out here) several times a week. I love coming out here,” Coston said. “I leave my phone at home. I bring binoculars or a camera. I find solace, solitude and friendship. It’s just a wonderful place to be.
“The fact that they’re doing this project just floors me, because now I know what it takes to do even a local project – the amount of time and money and energy, the compliance with all sorts of agencies working together. I’m so excited to see this project happen, against all odds.”