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Thursday, June 8, 2023
June 8, 2023

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Redesign for Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Agencies look to overhaul it by reconnecting it to the Columbia River, to benefit both wildlife and people

By , Columbian staff writer
4 Photos
Anna and Ronald Curtman take in nature at the Steigerwald Lake National Refuge. An $18 million project calls for making the refuge more inviting for both humans and wildlife.
Anna and Ronald Curtman take in nature at the Steigerwald Lake National Refuge. An $18 million project calls for making the refuge more inviting for both humans and wildlife. (Natalie Behring/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — For the past 29 years, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge has provided some much-needed respite for migratory waterfowl and concrete-fatigued urbanites alike, but things at the site are far from perfect.

“The lake is kind of a closed system encased in reed canarygrass. There’s not much diversity to its habitat and not much diversity to the wildlife,” said Christopher Lapp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader for the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge complex, which includes Steigerwald Lake.

The refuge, some neighboring organizations and the wildlife that depend on it have historically suffered as consequences of the inadequately engineered water management features at the refuge. Now, plans are being laid to redesign Steigerwald in a way that benefits plants, wildlife and people.

“It’s kind of unusual to have a project with so many benefits,” said Debrah Marriott, executive director of the nonprofit Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

As currently proposed, the roughly 1,000-acre refuge will have its levee along the Columbia River breached; two new levees built at the east and west ends of the refuge; the Gibbons Creek canal and a diversion structure at the canal removed; two culverts and a road removed; its wetlands expanded and replanted with thousands of native plants; and its nature trails rerouted.

The project is still in the design phase. An environmental assessment will be made available for public comment sometime in the fall.

Early estimates call for spending around $18 million, Marriott said. The Bonneville Power Administration is funding the project. Doing so helps the federal agency meet its obligations under the Northwest Power Act to mitigate for impacts of federal dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries.

The estuary partnership and the Port of Camas-Washougal are the project sponsors. The partnership hired the engineering firms doing the design and engineering work, but for years it organized volunteer restoration and planting on the site. The port reviews plans and designs and is responsible for long-term operations of the levee system.

The work is meant to restore the natural ebb and flow of water onto the floodplains. It’ll reconnect Gibbons Creek and the Columbia River and the refuge’s adjacent floodplain habitat while still maintaining flood protections for neighboring properties.

By reuniting Steigerwald Lake with the Columbia River, officials hope to better the prospects of Endangered Species Act-listed salmon, steelhead and cutthroat trout as well as other native wildlife and plants.

“If you connect (Steigerwald) to the Columbia, you create a lot of diversity,” Lapp said. “When you do that you’ll have an incredible diversity of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, amphibians and mammals that come with it and a much richer ecosystem.”

Breaching the levee

One of the trickiest parts of the project will be to breach the levee that separates the river from the refuge, while still providing flood protection to neighboring properties and state Highway 14.

To combat that, new setback levees will be built to maintain flood protection for private landowners on the east and the Port of Camas-Washougal on the west. There’s also talk of raising the level of state Highway 14 and possibly using Southeast Evergreen Highway as a detour when needed.

The port’s executive director, David Ripp, said during strong rains the current fish bypass system on Gibbons Creek causes the creek to overflow into the port’s drainage system. Some years the port has spent up to $100,000 on electricity to pump the water and prevent flooding on port property.

The port currently maintains a 5-mile-long levee built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that separates the refuge from the Columbia. A 2-mile stretch of the levee will be removed, and the port won’t be responsible for it any longer. Instead the port will manage the two setback levees built at the east and west ends of the refuge.

“We like it because we’d have less levee to maintain as well as the cost savings from Gibbons Creek not flowing into our drainage system,” Ripp said.

The Steigerwald restoration is locally significant, but it’s only a small amount of habitat compared to what has disappeared. Since 1870, 114,050 acres of habitat have been lost, including 70 percent of the lower Columbia River’s vegetated tidal wetlands, according to the estuary partnership’s 2015 State of the Estuary report.

It’s not the first time federal agencies have looked to restore Steigerwald. It was considered for restoration between 2010 and 2011, but the work proved too costly.

This time, the parties involved are optimistic for Steigerwald’s future.

“Hopefully we can get there,” Lapp said. “We’ve got a very viable project now; the benefits are massive for fish and the refuge and the community.”

Columbian staff writer