Restoration work at Washougal wildlife refuge begins Monday

Steigerwald refuge parking lot to close June 1; trails closed July 6 through Oct. 2

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Construction crews work at the Steigerwald wildlife refuge.

Construction at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal is set to begin Monday, June 1.

The work is part of the multi-year Steigerwald Reconnection Project, a collaborative effort led by the Portland-based Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (LCEP), United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Port of Camas-Washougal to reconfigure the existing Columbia River levee system to reduce flood risk, reconnect 965 acres of Columbia River floodplain and increase recreation opportunities.

“This is a big milestone for the project,” said LCEP’s executive director, Debrah Marriott.

Construction crews will raise a portion of state Route 14 (Highway 14), realign a section of Gibbons Creek, relocate the refuge’s parking lot and manufacture setback levees, which will better protect the Port’s industrial park, city of Washougal’s wastewater treatment plant and private residences from flooding.

“The significance of the June 1 date is that we’re getting started on the larger elements of the project,” said Chris Collins, LCEP’s principal restoration ecologist.

The work performed in 2019, including the wood placement and plantings cost about $400,000, Collins said. This year’s construction will likely be in the $8 million to $10 million range, he added.

“This is the largest step to date,” Collins said.

The refuge parking lot will close Monday, June 1, and the entire refuge (including the dike trail, beginning just east of Index Street) will be closed July 6 through Oct. 2. Travelers and local residents may also experience intermittent lane closures on Highway 14 through the end of September.

“During this time, visitors can access the dike trail from Captain William Clark Park east to the fish ladder,” according to a news release issued by LCEP. “However, the refuge’s interior trails will not be accessible to the public, including the Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail that connects to the dike trail near Redtail Lake and the refuge’s seasonal trail that connects to the dike trail just east of the fish ladder.”

Organizers hope that the project will provide fish with unobstructed passage to a high-quality habitat in the river.

“This project brings (our) work to a whole new level,” said Dave Miller of the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards, a group that has been leading and coordinating restoration and educational work at the refuge since 2006. “Volunteers and visitors will have a unique opportunity to see up close the dramatic seasonal changes in water levels, plant communities and wildlife that the refuge lands experienced before the Columbia dike and Gibbons Creek elevated channel were built.”

Project leaders selected two local companies — Rotschy, Inc. of Vancouver and LKE Corporation of Washougal — to construct the restoration project.

Collins said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic should not significantly impact the project.

“This is primarily a moderate-sized roadway project and a large-sized earthwork project. That type of work is fairly easy to do with all the distancing and personal protective equipment orders,” he said. “It will take some extra effort, but (the orders) are easily complied with. We don’t have any significant concerns. We’ll be compliant and careful and safe as we implement the project.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee reopened existing construction projects in late April with the caveat that contractors develop and post a safety plan that includes social distancing measures and methods of supplying adequate numbers of personal protective equipment.

“We are obviously following the governor’s orders regarding outdoor work and gatherings,” Marriott said. “We were happy that he opened up construction work. (Inslee’s announcement) came at the perfect time. A large, outdoor construction project involves far less personal interaction than, say, building construction, so it’s been easier to put social distancing measures in place, and we’ve done a good job of keeping our groups small, both out in the field and in meetings.”

Project backers estimate that the restoration will create roughly 500 family wage jobs and bring an additional $67.4 million into the Southwest Washington economy.

“(The pandemic) has this highlighted the project’s economic benefits,” Collins said. “When COVID-19 hit, unemployment numbers started going up, and for everybody that I was talking to, it became much more important to get this done. So many jobs are associated with this project, and it’s important to the local economy. The main thing that was going through my mind (when the pandemic hit) was that we have to do whatever it takes to get it done, because the economic importance of this project had doubled or tripled.”