WASHOUGAL – The largest habitat restoration project along the lower Columbia River is coming to a close this spring. Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, east of Washougal in Clark County, is slated to reopen May 1 after almost two years of being intermittently closed to the public.
Flood prevention and fish migration
The roughly $31 million project to decrease flooding and increase salmon and steelhead migration was funded, in part, by the Bonneville Power Administration, the Washington Department of Ecology, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
Updates included removing a roughly 2-mile levee that separated the Columbia River from nearby Gibbons Creek, which officials say reopened a natural pathway for salmon and steelhead migration and will prevent the creek from flooding. Before removing the levee, fish could only bypass the embankment through a fish ladder, which is a series of pools built to allow fish to swim over obstacles like dams. The fish ladder was removed.
The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership reports the levee was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s to prevent the Columbia River from flooding the refuge. However, the levee exacerbated Gibbons Creek’s flooding, which often spilled into the Port of Camas-Washougal property and forced the port to use an expensive pumping system to remove high waters, reports the partnership.
The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership says a different type of levee, which allows the river to meander more naturally, was added in 2020 and 2021 in the east and west to protect the port. Port of Camas-Washougal Chief Executive Officer David Ripp said the updates protect the port’s industrial park, “which is the economic engine for our community, and greatly reduced our operations and maintenance costs.”
The Washington Department of Transportation also raised nearby State Route 14 roughly 3 feet to align the road with the Columbia River’s 500-year flood stage level.
The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of four refuges along the lower Columbia River, including the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife says the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge was built to create habitat lost during the 1987 construction of the Bonneville dam, which BPA uses to generate electricity in the Northwest.
The restoration project also created more than 115 acres of new wetlands, officials report. More than half a millions trees and shrubs and 14,000 pounds of native seeds were planted.
The Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust sold 160 acres to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to expand the overall refuge. The refuge parking lot also was expanded and relocated and roughly 1 mile of a new trail was added.
Officials report roughly 90,000 people are expected to visit the refuge annually.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect ath Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust sold land to exapand the refuge. An earlier version mistakenly indicated the land was donated.
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