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News / Clark County News

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge’s reconnection project allows excess water to naturally drain into Columbia River

Excessive runoff used to flow onto port, city and private property

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: December 5, 2023, 6:51pm
4 Photos
A pair walks Monday through Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The protected landscape &mdash; spanning more than a thousand acres &mdash; is roped into the larger Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Franz Lake, Pierce and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges.
A pair walks Monday through Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The protected landscape — spanning more than a thousand acres — is roped into the larger Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Franz Lake, Pierce and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As a series of atmospheric rivers pushed through the region, excessive runoff proved the success of one of the largest habitat restoration projects in the lower Columbia River’s history.

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, an expanse of wetlands spanning more than 1,000 acres east of Washougal, previously made its neighbors vulnerable during heavy rainfall. Gibbons Creek, a Columbia River tributary, would pour over the banks of its levee and flow onto port, city and private property. The Port of Camas-Washougal would then pump excess water into the Columbia River.

The Steigerwald Reconnection project, 965 acres of restoration completed in 2022, now allows excess water to naturally drain into the Columbia River, feeding the floodplain along the way.

“The restoration work completed at Steigerwald was designed to work with nature, not against it,” Chris Collins, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership project manager, said in an email. “High-water events, such as the rain we are experiencing, were anticipated during design.”

Southwest Washington was drenched through this morning, with Clark County receiving up to 2½ inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service in Portland.

This streamed into hundreds of acres of Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge’s wetland habitat, providing a safe haven for waterfowl and juvenile salmon, Collins said. Before the reconnection project, the site resembled a hayfield and provided little habitat for wildlife.

The project expanded the refuge by 160 acres and shed more than 2 miles of its obsolete levees. By the end of winter, the volunteers, student groups and professional crews will have planted more than 700,000 native tress and shrubs across the site, Collins said.

New artificial banks protect habitats from the Port of Camas-Washougal’s industrial park and wastewater treatment plant. A concrete channel along Gibbons Creek was excised, as was a fish ladder at the creek’s confluence with the Columbia River. Segments of state Highway 14 were raised to the Columbia River’s 500-year flood level.

Since the reconnection project concluded, the ecosystem has rebounded.

The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership installed two fish monitors spanning Gibbons Creek’s main channel to detect tagged salmon, though data isn’t available yet.

However, staff and visitors have observed growth firsthand.

Last month, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership personnel spotted coho salmon weaving upstream Gibbons Creek while they crossed a channel bridge. Beavers, too, are returning to Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, some of whom have built a lodge near a levee, Collins said. Birders have reported seeing at least two new bird species since the restoration concluded.

Additional monitoring in the coming years will shed more light on how the site is recovering, Collins wrote.

Steigerwald Reconnection’s success inspired work less than a quarter-mile upstream in the Campen Creek, a tributary of Gibbons Creek. Here, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership and its partners will connect Campen Creek to its floodplain, which will add shallow groundwater reserves, slow potential flooding, and improve salmon and lamprey habitat, according to the organization.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which it acquired in 1987 to offset lowland habitat loss during Bonneville Dam construction, providing refuge to resident and migratory wildlife. The site is roped into the larger Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Franz Lake, Pierce and Ridgefield national wildlife refuges.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer