Budget Crisis: Habitat rehab treads water

Steigerwald Lake work depends on state grant tied up in stalled budget

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Capital Budget Crisis

A three-part series

Saturday: Capital budget impasse affects projects statewide.

Sunday: School building projects face delays, budget cuts.

Monday: Ambitious Steigerwald habitat project left in limbo.

The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership and its partners have ambitious plans to restore habitat and mitigate flood risk at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Washougal. But political squabbling and the absence of a state capital budget has left part of the project in limbo.

The Steigerwald Habitat Restoration and Flood Control Project would reconnect 912 acres of floodplains to the Columbia River by removing 2.2 miles of levee along the Port of Camas-Washougal and building two new ones to protect adjacent properties from flooding. It also calls for replanting native vegetation and rerouting nature trails through the refuge, among other improvements.

The plan relies on a $4.6 million grant from Washington State Department of Ecology Floodplains by Design program. That program is financed by the state capital budget, which the state legislature failed to adopt before adjourning earlier this year.

Among other things, the Floodplains by Design funding would cover the costs of elevating part of state Highway 14 to the Columbia River’s 500-year flood level, help pay for the removal of the diversion channel along Gibbons Creek and the creation of recreation-focused elements related to moving the levee system.

The project is a collaboration between the Partnership, the Port of Camas-Washougal, Bonneville Power Administration, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others.

At about $17 million, the bulk of the roughly $22 million project is being funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. The agency is legally required to mitigate impacts to fish and wildlife habitat created by the dams it put on the Columbia and its tributaries and the project fit that goal well.

Partnership Executive Director Debrah Marriott said the works that would be covered by the state grant are crucial to the overall plan. Without the funding, “the project will have to be re-scoped but we’re not certain to what degree,” she said.

The state funding would pay for other elements of the project that the BPA money wouldn’t cover, but that Marriott said are integral to the overall work.

“We could probably make it work if we have to apply (for program funding) next year, but there’s a timing and sequence to the work,” she said. “The changes are integral, they’re not add-ons.”

But even while the legislative session was in full swing and a capital budget seemed to be a given, funding for the project wasn’t guaranteed.

Floodplains by Design is administered by Ecology and the Nature Conservancy with the goal of better managing floodplains for farms, fish habitat and communities. Projects are evaluated and ranked based on need and potential benefit. The Steigerwald project ranked eighth out of 29 funding requests.

According to the Office of Financial Management, the Steigerwald project ranked high enough on the Floodplains by Design list to get money if either the state House of Representatives or Senate budgets were approved, but it wouldn’t make the cut if the Governor’s version was adopted.

Marriott said there’s a lot of work to be done to meet the BPA’s requirements to get their funding, but in the next few months the absence of the state funding will become a problem.

“If we didn’t receive it, we’d have to find it and that’s a lot of money to just go find,” she said.