LA CENTER — When the popular trail at La Center Bottoms reopens next week, visitors will notice some changes to the serene natural area outside of town.
The trail has been temporarily closed since September as a restoration project reshapes the area. Even as the effort winds down, heavy equipment and workers still roamed the area earlier this week.
The project, led by the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, aims to create a better link between the East Fork of the Lewis River and the wetland that was largely cut off from it for decades. Crews have realigned one existing channel from the river, added three entirely new channels and removed a damaged culvert. When the river rises in the coming months, water will make its way into the area easier than before.
“Our goal is to improve the connection between the river and this floodplain, and improve the habitat once we’ve done that,” said Marshall Johnson, an ecologist with the estuary partnership.
For decades, much of the La Center Bottoms area was privately owned and used for agriculture. A man-made levee created a barrier between the East Fork of the Lewis River and the historic floodplain. With three new channels, crews have added new entry points through which water can reach the area and add benefit, Johnson said.
The popular walking trail, which follows the path of the levee, remains intact. Where crews carved away sections of the barrier, they added new bridges to cross the channels and keep the trail whole. The work also took care of some potentially problematic areas of erosion and instability, Johnson said.
“The levee and the existing trail were in trouble in some spots already,” he said.
The $2 million project was mostly funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. The federal power marketing agency operates an expansive Environment, Fish and Wildlife program, and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership is one of its main partners for restoration work in the region, said BPA spokesman David Wilson.
Though construction took place this year, the project has been in the works for much longer, Johnson said. A three-year planning and design process crafted the plan that advocates say will create a refuge for juvenile salmon and other wildlife. He said the project, like others, was thoroughly vetted to make sure the system will behave as expected when the river rises and channels fill up, sending water into the site.
“When you’re proposing to connect a river with a floodplain … there’s a lot that you need to be sure about,” Johnson said.
BPA officials conduct their own reviews as the agency looks for habitat work to support in the region. The La Center Bottoms project more than made the cut, Wilson said.
“We thought that was a good candidate to give us a lot of bang for the buck, and give us a lot of benefit,” he said.
The entire project area is owned by Clark County, which purchased the parcel through its Legacy Lands program in 1993, said Pat Lee, the program coordinator. The county has played a supporting role throughout the project, Lee said.
After the major work is finished next week, trees will be planted across 32 acres starting in November, Johnson said. The walking trail could open again as early as Monday, he said.