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April 17, 2021

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Port of Vancouver plans berm to aid sandhill cranes

Many residents concerned about effect on Vancouver Lake

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

The Port of Vancouver plans to begin construction on a large berm adjacent to the Vancouver Lake flushing channel to provide endangered sandhill cranes a place to forage and rest with some solitude from human activity.

Measuring at least 12 feet high, roughly 82 feet wide and more than 3,500 feet long, the berm will be built with an estimated 120,000 cubic yards of material and planted with shrubs, trees and other native vegetation — all designed to deaden the noise and visually hide potential industrial activity.

Its construction is part of an agreement struck between the port and the Columbia River Alliance for Nurturing the Environment after more than a decade of negotiations over habitat preservation and industrial development. The deal enabled the port to develop about 450 acres for heavy industry at its Columbia Gateway property while ensuring an adjacent 540 acres are preserved as a feeding and resting site for sandhill cranes and other migratory birds.

“We have to built it, and we want to build it, because we deeded that land to Columbia Land Trust to be managed in perpetuity for migratory birds,” said port spokeswoman Abbi Russell. “It’s a visual and sound barrier to the future development of the Columbia Gateway property.”

The toe of the berm will be built on the port’s Columbia Gateway property, set 12 feet back from the south bank of the Vancouver Lake flushing channel, not far from Frenchman’s Bar Regional Park.

Adjacent to the property is Crane’s Landing, a site the Columbia Land Trust manages as a stopping point on the Pacific flyway for migrating cranes. To attract the birds, the land trust has planted more than 400 acres of peas, sorghum and several different types of corn in different row formations and concentrations to figure out which ones they most prefer.

Later this year, the land trust plans to break ground on a berm project of its own, separate and aside from the port’s.

“From our standpoint, we have agreed to manage and monitor what we call the cranes landing site for the benefit of cranes and other species,” said Ian Sinks, Columbia Land Trust stewardship director. “We see the benefits and know there will be benefits to screen the cranes from the development that there will be in the future.”

Sandhill cranes are listed as an endangered species in Washington. A 2017 period status review of the birds published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife describes habitat loss and the decline of staging areas, such as the one Columbia Land Trust is working to preserve, as potential factors affecting the birds.

“Crane habitat, particularly on the lower Columbia bottomlands between Vancouver and Woodland, is affected by industrial development and conversion of agricultural lands to incompatible crops and uses,” the report states.

Lake impact

But some Vancouver residents are concerned about the construction of the port’s berm, fearing that it will significantly reduce the chances of substantially widening the flushing channel and limit the possibilities of improving Vancouver Lake’s conditions. Indeed, Russell said the port received more than 200 comments on the berm project, all related to the flushing channel and Vancouver Lake, during the public comment period of the State Environmental Policy Act determination process.

Vancouver Lake is an impaired waterway that struggles with high levels of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, poor water clarity, high temperatures and occasional cyanobacteria blooms, which can be harmful to people and animals in the summer months, according to a 2013 report drafted by the Vancouver Lake Watershed Partnership. Swimming at the lake has also been closed in the past due to high levels of E. coli bacteria.

The flushing channel, complete with two 7-foot culverts under Lower River Road, was built in 1983 as part of a lake-restoration project. On average, about 85 percent of the lake’s water comes from Lake River; about 9 percent of the lake’s water input comes from the channel.

The report cites a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydraulic model of the lake that considered expanding the culverts to 11 feet each and concluded that would do little to increase water circulation.

“Early in their planning process, there was hope for a ‘silver bullet’ — an easy solution that would address issues quickly, inexpensively, and effectively. But a silver bullet was nowhere to be found,” the report states, predicting that algal blooms “will likely never be eliminated from Vancouver Lake no matter what action(s) are implemented.”

In its recommendations to improve water quality, the group suggested studying the Lake River system to identify nutrient sources, and better management of Burnt Bridge Creek and Lake River and its tributaries. It also encouraged the study of modifications to the flushing channel that would reduce water input from Lake River.

Regardless of what it’ll take to improve the lake’s water quality, the port has to honor its commitment to build the berm, Russell said.

“In the long term, if the flushing channel is part of a solution for the lake — and it might take years to figure that out — the berm is a mound of earth and vegetation,” she said. “If that’s something it comes down to it can be moved.”

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