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Dec. 3, 2021

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Steigerwald habitat shows signs of health as restoration moves into homestretch

By , Columbian staff writer
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Chris Collins, project manager for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, walks past a new trail bridge crossing the levee breach to the Columbia River at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday morning.
Chris Collins, project manager for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, walks past a new trail bridge crossing the levee breach to the Columbia River at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Spread across more than 1,000 acres just east of Washougal lies one of Southwest Washington’s prime wildlife habitats. The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge has offered 90,000 visitors each year open fields, wandering streams, mountain views, wildlife viewing and easily accessed hiking trails. But the refuge has been closed to visitors since August 2019.

Part of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Steigerwald refuge is in the midst of a $25 million habitat restoration project to restore 965 acres. It’s the largest project of its kind attempted on the Columbia River.

“Essentially, it’s a reconfiguration of that whole levee system to reconnect the river to the refuge but also to connect Gibbons Creek, which is an important tributary of the lower Columbia River,” said Chris Collins, project manager for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership.

When the refuge reopens in April, visitors will find numerous changes.

“The existing levee system is oriented east-west along the bank of the river, so we’re building two setback levees. Building those maintains or improves the level of flood protection depending on which piece of infrastructure you’re talking about,” Collins said.

In addition, over 2 miles of existing levees were removed along with water control and stream diversion infrastructure. The project also includes planting around 250 acres of native riparian forest, reconstruction of the trail system to include an additional mile of trail, two new bridges and new overlooks.

“All the soil we’re using to construct the two new levees comes from within the site. We’re sourcing that so it not only generates the right kind of soil to build the levees but also generates beneficial habitats,” Collins said, adding that work will create or restore 115 acres of wetlands.

About 85 percent of the funding for the project came from Bonneville Power Administration as part of their efforts to offset impacts of operating its dams. The remaining funds came from the Washington Department of Ecology, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bonneville Environmental Foundation (which is separate from BPA), Collins said.

The Steigerwald Lake refuge is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which acquired the original section of the refuge in the 1980s. It’s part of the larger Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex that also includes the Franz Lake, Pierce and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges.

“Habitat restoration and providing places for habitat and for people to connect to wildlife and recreate is important,” said Juliette Fernandez, project manager for the refuge complex.

When the levee system was first built, Gibbons Creek was diverted to a concrete channel. That had a significant impact on juvenile fish that depend on small rivers and estuaries to hide from predators. The concrete channel is being removed so the creek can reconnect to the Columbia, which will once again allow salmon, lampreys and other fish into the estuary.

To ensure the refuge would be a place beneficial to both wildlife and people, Fernandez said a Fish and Wildlife Service refuge biologist worked with the project on planting native species and ecological integrity.

Those coming to the refuge next April should expect to see more plant diversity already and for wildlife diversity to increase, Fernandez said.

“Visitors won’t recognize it. There are new things to see and you’ll actually get to see Gibbons Creek connect to the river. You’ll be able walk over streams and possibly see where salmon and lamprey pass through,” she said.

Fernandez said the collaboration between project partners has been impressive. “The whole team is invested in making it a community asset,” she added.

Restructuring the levee will bring benefits to the area beyond improvements to the refuge. Collins said the work being done now will reduce the flood risk for the industrial park west of the refuge, the Port of Camas-Washougal and the city of Camas.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first built the 5½-mile long levee system in the 1960s, it was to protect against flooding along the Columbia River.

“Without the levee, it would flood during spring runoff,” said David Ripp, CEO for Port of Camas-Washougal. The port managed the original levee system and will continue its management with the new levees.

Although the levee system did reduce flooding, it also created new problems.

“The fish bypass system was failing,” Ripp said, leading to excess water going into the stormwater system. The port worked with the Corps to fix the overflow problem but also had to install pumps to remove the water.

“We were looking at $100,000 annually in costs,” Ripp added. “With the new levees, we won’t have to do that now.”

The upcoming winter and spring seasons will be the first test for the new levee design, which also bisects some of the port’s property.

For David Miller of Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards, it feels like it’s been forever since the refuge was last open to the public. Miller did get to visit the project site about a month ago and saw a number of changes already taking place.

“It looks so different. What used to be a huge expanse of reed canary grass (a non-native species) is now diverse habitat,” Miller said.

Miller said the improved trail system will mean trails are closer to open water, giving birders and photographers a better chance to spot wildlife.

“You’ll also see beavers more closely than before. And the beaver will make ponds that attract other wildlife, like bats,” he said. That’s particularly good news for the “bat walks” Miller hosts at the refuge.

He also thinks wildlife will rebound more quickly than expected once all the heavy earth-moving equipment is gone.

“Most people come to the refuge to reconnect to nature,” Miller said. “I’ve met lots of people who walk the trails regularly. There are hardcore bird people who come to see specific birds, lots of students who do volunteer work, and lots of photographers come out there. It’s a great place for photographers.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service will host a ribbon cutting ceremony when the refuge reopens. For more information on the refuge, go to https://www.fws.gov/refuge/steigerwald_lake.

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