In Gibbons Creek, “you’ll find Coho salmon, you’ll find steelhead, you’ll find a small number of cutthroat trout and you’ll find an abundance of lamprey,” Collins said.
“Just because we have so much more open water at the refuge than we used to, now there are so many opportunities for nesting birds and a much larger variety of waterfowl,” said Juliette Fernandez, project leader for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
On the first day the refuge was reopened, Fernandez said, visitors reported seeing a wide variety of birds including purple martin, killdeer, herons, geese, ducks and others.
“There was a little killdeer mother over by the trail that was yelling at everybody walking by,” Fernandez said.
The restoration project included a complete reconfiguration of the existing levee system, reconnecting the refuge and Gibbons Creek to the lower Columbia River. Two miles of existing levees were removed.
In their place are two new setback levees that either maintain or improve the level of flood protection for the area. The Port of Camas-Washougal and the city of Camas will also have greater protection from floods because of the new levees, Collins said.
The restoration project gives visitors new opportunities to explore.
“The trail system is longer, and it’s also a lot more diverse. Instead of just walking along the river, the trail now weaves into and out of the refuge and crosses a couple of channels with new bridges,” Collins added.
Removing invasive plant species was also important to the project partners. Around 250 acres of native riparian forest were planted with 500,000 plantings of willow, cottonwood, spirea, dogwood and wapato, a tuber that was vital to the Chinook Indians.
While most of the plantings were done by local contractors, the refuge also brought 2,000 local students to help with nearly 10,000 of the plantings.
“That was super exciting, because it really got the community involved,” Collins said.
The soil used to build the new levees was sourced from the refuge, so that “it not only generates the right kind of soil to build the levees but also generates beneficial habitats,” Collins said.
But not all the work is done. The refuge will need to close for one month over the summer to allow crews to finish a final stretch of trail work that was delayed by the winter and spring’s heavy rains.
About 85 percent of the funding for the project came from the Bonneville Power Administration as part of its efforts to offset impacts of dam operations. 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, which also includes the Franz Lake, Pierce and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges.
Public gets first look
A grand opening ceremony with guest speakers and project partners was held Saturday to celebrate the refuge’s reopening and completion (nearly) of the habitat restoration. But Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky from Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership said the decision was made to open the refuge a week earlier to give visitors a chance to see the changes first.
“The logic behind that was, who is the refuge for? Is it for the dignitaries and figureheads? Do they get to be the first ones to walk the new trails, or is it the public who are going to be the long-term stewards and who love this place?” Zimmer-Stucky said.
Fernandez said the expectation was that visitors would begin to trickle in over the first few days the refuge was reopened. However, she noted the parking lot — which is 50 percent bigger than it was previously — was already packed the first day.
“The turnout was amazing,” Fernandez said. “It was really neat to see them be so inspired and excited to see all the wildlife.”
Those who haven’t had a chance to visit the refuge yet can at least get a taste of it. Sort of. Washougal’s 54-40 Brewery launched its newest IPA called Reconnection Ale in honor of the project.
“It has the tasting notes of overripe peach and apricot; it’s hazy, not too bitter, a very nice tasting IPA,” Zimmer-Stucky said.