Steigerwald project had ‘productive year’

Refuge restoration is on schedule, within budget; completion expected in early 2022

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Contributed photo courtesy Chris Collins Construction crews revamped the parking lot at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year as part of the Steigerwald Connection Project. (Contributed photo courtesy of Chris Collins)

2020 has been a big year for the massive Steigerwald Reconnection Project happening at the national Steigerwald Lake wildlife refuge located on the edge of Washougal.

“I would say we had a successful, productive year,” said Chris Collins, a principal restoration ecologist for the Portland-based Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, which is working with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Port of Camas-Washougal to reconfigure the existing Columbia River levee system to reduce flood risk, reconnect 965 acres of Columbia River floodplain at the refuge and increase recreation opportunities.

Several of the project’s major tasks — raising Highway 14 to a level matching the Columbia River’s 500-year flood level, realigning a portion of Gibbons Creek and building the foundations for two setback levees — wrapped up in late October.

“We’re on schedule. We’re within our budget,” Collins said. “The critical tasks that we really needed to accomplish this year, we hit those within the time frame. I think we’re well positioned to have a successful year next year and to wrap things up in early 2022.”

Collins said the project will take on “a very different” look in 2021.

“The nature of the work will change quite a bit,” he said.

2021 will be “primarily about two things,” Collins said: completing the earth work required to build the setback levees and finishing the trail system.

Collins said construction crews have nearly 30 percent of the earth work done on the setback levees.

“So next year we’ve got 70, 75 percent left. That’s a big lift. That’s really going to be our primary focus,” he said.

The revamped trail system will include new bridges and a new trail network and crews will have to reinstall the trail’s signage and artwork.

“We’ll be working on that throughout the season and pretty heavily this time next year,” Collins said. “There’s a lot associated with wrapping that up.”

Project leaders have said the $25 million restoration project, which began in 2013, will create roughly 500 family wage jobs and bring an additional $67.4 million into the Southwest Washington economy.

Project to ‘benefit wildlife, improve visitor experience’

Juliette Fernandez is a USFWS project leader who moved from Arizona in August 2020 to take a job managing operations, programs and employees at Steigerwald, Ridgefield, Franz Lake and Pierce wildlife refuges in Washington state.

“I’ve worked on some big projects in other places,” Fernandez said, “but what’s neat about this one is the fact that not only will it benefit wildlife, but it will connect the floodplain back to the river, (improve) the visitor experience, provide opportunities for community engagement, and create flood protection for the Port of Camas-Washougal, the community on the side of Gibbons Creek and the working ranch to the east. It’s creating a true community asset. It’s beyond anything I (previously) worked on. This project has such a big reach, and it’s pretty inspiring to play a part in it.”

Strong communication and cooperation have been key to the project’s success, according to Fernandez.

“I have been so impressed,” she said. “Everybody is on top of (their jobs), in sync with one another and very solution oriented. Things are running really smoothly. Because this is such a cool project which will provide so many benefits to wildlife and people, everybody is driven to be successful.”

Collins said the project’s contractors — Vancouver-based Rotschy, Inc. and Washougal’s LKE Corp. — have done great work so far.

“We’ve been really happy with them,” Collins said. “Not every project they do, to say the least, occurs in a sensitive environmental area, and they’ve been really receptive to our concerns. They’re not only doing good work, but also doing everything they can to minimize their impacts during construction.”