A wetland once, and again

113 acres in Fargher Lake area will return to natural state through mitigation effort

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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photoFargher Lake, a former wetland drained by farmers, is becoming a wetland again with the planting of native grasses. Once drainage tiles are removed, the water will seep back. The wetland mitigation project will sell credits to developers in the East Fork of the Lewis River watershed.

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photoVolunteer trees have begun sprouting in a section of Fargher Lake where drainage tiles were removed and the water came flooding back.

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Fargher Lake never was an actual lake. But a 113-acre portion of the large open area near Amboy, drained by area farmers for nearly a century, already is returning to its natural state as a forested wetland.

Tall native grasses cover much of the site. As the first drainage tiles are removed, birds, deer and even coyotes are finding their way back to an area that once again provides food and cover.

In June, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the East Fork Lewis Mitigation Bank, Clark County’s second wetland mitigation bank, clearing the way for the company managing the project, Habitat Bank NW of Woodinville, to begin selling wetland mitigation credits.

The Columbia River Wetland Mitigation Bank, on Port of Vancouver property, cleared its final regulatory hurdles this spring. Habitat Bank NW hopes to begin work on wetland restoration at both sites later this year.

At Fargher Lake, the company will be authorized to sell 91 wetland mitigation “credits” at a cost of $150,000 per credit to private developers, road-builders, ports and utilities, and others. What purchasers will get for their money is an offset for the unavoidable filling or destruction of wetlands, as required by the federal Clean Water Act.

Among likely customers at the site, according to project manager Steve Sego, are the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Port of Ridgefield and the town of La Center, as well as some private developers.

Virtually the entire watershed of the East Fork of the Lewis River is included in the service area covered by the mitigation bank — including soggy land in and around Battle Ground that has been a headache for developers for a decade or more. The area is dotted with large fenced stormwater retention ponds and pocked with failed wetland mitigation projects.

Bart Phillips, former executive director of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, recalls that when Clark County was revising its comprehensive plan in 2004, “it looked like we had a lot of developable land, but a lot of it was wet.”

Wetland banking was a concept being promoted by the Department of Ecology at the time, and Phillips attended meetings and met with firms that were seeking to develop mitigation banks. One of those entrepreneurs was Sego.

Phillips “was instrumental in getting us to connect to Clark County,” Sego recalled. “He offered to put us together with developers and agencies. … I realized we could fill a void ecologically, providing solutions for unavoidable environmental impacts.”

Would-be wetlands

Over several years, Sego has become an expert on the hydrology of Clark County.

“I’ve been in every sub-basin in this county,” he said on a tour in late June. “I’m not looking for wetlands, I’m looking for places that want to be wetlands.”

Fargher Lake fit the bill. Before European settlement, it was a hummocky forested wetland with open water, composed of Semiahmoo muck, a type of compressed organic soil type found in bogs.

“It’s like quicksand,” Sego said. “Nothing keeps it together. Once water gets into it, it just melts.”

Fargher Lake is fed by Fargher Pond to the north and other streams and ditches. Farmers in the area leveled the land and drained it. They put in thousands of feet of drainage tile — first wooden drainage boxes, then terra cotta tiles when those became available. Rainwater sluiced through the muck, leaving the surface dry.

In 2005, Sego approached landowner Perry Gilmour with an offer to buy a conservation easement covering 99 acres at the northwest corner of Fargher Lake. Gilmour, who lives in a house overlooking the project, agreed.

“We created a model where he can keep the property,” Sego said. “In the end, we will endow it in perpetuity.”

He also signed conservation easements with two other property owners, covering a total of 14 acres. All will be free to hunt and fish on the property.

“Passive recreation uses that are compatible with conservation are allowed,” Sego said. “It’s meant to be a functioning habitat.”

Two of the three remaining drainage ditches on the site will be plugged to re-create wetlands. One main ditch will stay, to allow farming and prevent flooding of adjacent private property.

“Water will spread out,” Sego said. “There’s very little standing water now, but as the drainage tiles are removed, it will come flooding back.”

He knows what will happen because one of the old wood drainage tiles blew out when someone drove over it a couple of years ago. Almost overnight, the surrounding area became a bog, attracting voles and other critters.

Test pits indicate that the further the distance from the edge of the clearing, the higher the water and the deeper the muck.

In 2009, Gilmour planted 60 acres of native grasses and sedges on the site. Sego picked up the $10,000 bill for the seed. The result has been dramatic. There’s coyote signs. There’s flattened grass where deer have bedded down. Small rodents have attracted birds. Raptor poles will be installed to give hawks a place to perch.

Getting to this point has cost about $1 million, Sego said. Every detail of the project must be approved by the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We had to do a hydrological plan, an engineering plan. It’s an incredible amount of work, but the chances of success are also incredible,” he said.

The mitigation bank is intended to be a profitable venture, and one that will continue in perpetuity, barring natural disasters like a catastrophic volcanic eruption.

“After 10 years, we turn over a chunk of money for an endowment,” Sego said. “It’s meant to be self-sustaining. But we aren’t responsible for results of an act of God.”

Battle Ground project

The Fargher Lake site isn’t Sego’s only project in north Clark County. He’s also working closely with the city of Battle Ground to turn 60 acres within the city into a wetland mitigation site.

The 80-acre Remy Farm, one of the headwaters of Mill Creek, was acquired by the city for public use in 2003. It’s too wet for a ball field, but it’s a perfect site for wetland mitigation.

“I heard about it six or seven years ago,” Sego said. “We started it as part of Fargher Lake. It didn’t work as a bank, because banks are set up to sell mitigation credits over 10 years. This one was already sold to the city.”

Instead, Habitat Bank NW formed a partnership with the city under which 60 acres of the site will be used to offset loss of wetlands from various projects within the city, including roads and commercial projects. Developers will pay Sego for the offsets, and he in turn will give 20 percent of the proceeds to the city, said Battle Ground City Manager John Williams.

About 20 acres of the property in a drier upland area will be developed with a trail and passive recreation.

The recession has slowed development in north Clark County, but city officials expect it to pick up again. And with new wetland rules under consideration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they say, the city will need a more effective way to offset wetland impacts.

“The nice thing about this is that (Habitat Bank NW) will take care of the maintenance of the site and remove dead trees,” said Battle Ground Public Works Director Scott Sawyer.

Once the economy picks up, wetland issues “are going to be in the forefront again,” Bart Phillips agrees. And wetland mitigation banks have a big advantage over individual on-site mitigation projects, he said.

“As you drive around Battle Ground, you see these big ponds with chain-link fences. I think this is a much more successful and viable solution.”

A lot of on-site mitigation projects done by developers fail, Phillips said. “They fail in the maintenance. Developers are interested in getting on to the next project, not spending a lot of time on long-term maintenance.”

“Coming out of the recession, the public sector is the one doing the development right now,” he said, but that, too, will change. And although wetland mitigation credits are pricey, he said, “they won’t be that expensive when you consider the time and effort involved in maintenance.”

Wetland rules haven’t slowed development, but they have made it more difficult and expensive, Phillips says.

“Quality projects went ahead in the face of these regulations. It doesn’t put us at a competitive disadvantage. It does make it more complicated, and rightfully so. Long-term, you want quality development that protects the environment,” Phillips said.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.