Fresh off the success of its Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge habitat-restoration project, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership has set its sights on another historic project. This time, the organization is focusing on the East Fork Lewis River, specifically the Ridgefield Pits — an area encompassing nine abandoned pit mines about 4 miles upstream from La Center.
On Monday, the state Recreation and Conservation Office awarded $7.74 million to the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership to help ensure the survival of salmon in Washington. A total of $76 million in grants was awarded through the office’s Salmon Recovery Funding Board for 138 projects in 30 counties. Clark County received the second-largest share behind Jefferson County.
“This is incredibly important work,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press release Monday. “The projects will help restore salmon across the state. That means more salmon for our endangered orcas, more jobs for people and industries that rely on salmon and improved habitat that can better protect us from floods and the effects of climate change.”
According to Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, communications associate for the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the bulk of the grants — $7.05 million — will go to the East Fork reclamation project.
“It’s similar to Steigerwald — a very large project, a very expensive project but one that has a huge amount of value for salmon, flood risk reduction, erosion control,” Zimmer-Stucky said.
While the Steigerwald project was the largest habitat-restoration project on the Columbia River, Zimmer-Stucky said this project would be the largest such effort on the East Fork Lewis River.
The group’s other projects include a regional fish passage barrier assessment and development of an online mapping tool; final design for a portion of projects also on the East Fork Lewis River that removes a hardened bank and reconnects two tributaries; final design for another portion of an East Fork Lewis River and Mason Creek project; and final designs and permitting for Woodard Creek restoration in Skamania County.
The need for the East Fork reclamation project arose from flooding that occurred in 1995 and 1996.
“The river shifted course during a flooding event. Mining had been going on out there since the 1950s, so it was a pretty well-established mining area with abandoned pits,” said Elaine Placido, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership’s executive director.
In the nearly two decades since the flooding occurred, Placido said, the river has not yet recovered. Although the organization could continue to wait, she said it could be quite some time.
“If we chose to ignore the problem, it could naturally recover, but it could take over 100 years to do that,” Placido said.
In the meantime, salmon and steelhead spawning has been eliminated and rearing opportunities have been significantly reduced, she said.
“The warm-water ponds (created by the pit mines) block access for fish to the upper portion of the watershed, and warm-water ponds benefit fish that prey on salmon,” Placido said. “It’s a pretty inhospitable area for salmon in that portion of the river.”
“Places like this are really rich for critters — fish, wildlife. It doesn’t look like that anymore,” said Paul Kolp, principal restoration ecologist for the organization.
Prior to the flooding, Kolp said, the river wound its way around the mining pits; after the flooding, it went directly through them.
“We’re really trying to restore the natural alluvial processes, (where the river would) shift back and forth and was able to support cold-water species like salmon and steelhead. Today it doesn’t,” Kolp said.
To restore the river habitat, the mine pits will be filled in using on-site materials, and about 300 acres of floodplain will be regraded. Kolp said the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership will also try to preserve existing features or areas that already support cold-water species.
“This is going to be a big floodplain reset,” Kolp said. “There is also a mile to a 1½ mile of side-channel work we’re going to do, and we’re going to remove some fish-passage barriers.”
With the total cost for the project estimated between $12 million and $15 million, the grants awarded Monday will cover about half of the tab. Placido said the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership will need to secure additional funding for the project, which it hopes will come through the Legislature.
“For that, we’re looking for support from the Floodplains by Design program with the Washington Department of Ecology,” she said.
Placido said the Legislature is expected to determine how much funding will be allocated to the program during the 2023 session.
“If the Legislature supports the program at $70 million, then the East Fork reclamation project will be funded,” Placido said.
However, if the Legislature decides to allocate less than $70 million, the project wouldn’t receive any funding through the Floodplains by Design program.
“It’s most efficient and effective if we go big on restoration projects to ensure all of our project benefits are met … instead of trying to piecemeal a lot of different little projects together,” she said.
Placido is hopeful that the organization’s success with the Steigerwald project, which received funding through that same program, will help move the project forward.
But for now, it will have to wait — somewhat impatiently, Placido said — for the Legislature to convene in January.