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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
June 6, 2023

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East Fork Lewis River habitat restoration at risk in Inslee’s budget

Clark County Council asks Legislature to support floodplain project

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
An aerial view shows flooded abandoned gravel pits along the East Fork of Lewis River west of Daybreak Park in north Clark County.  The river, winding at far right, flows into the pit area and widens considerably, slowing down and heating up during summer months.
An aerial view shows flooded abandoned gravel pits along the East Fork of Lewis River west of Daybreak Park in north Clark County. The river, winding at far right, flows into the pit area and widens considerably, slowing down and heating up during summer months. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

A habitat restoration project planned for the East Fork Lewis River could be in jeopardy if Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget is passed by the Legislature. The Clark County Council is hoping its support for the project will encourage legislators to provide funding beyond what’s included in Inslee’s budget.

The project would begin near Daybreak Regional Park and encompass the former gravel mining operation known as the Ridgefield pits upstream from La Center.

Flooding in 1995 and 1996 shifted the course of the East Fork Lewis River and flooded the abandoned mining pits. In the nearly two decades since, salmon and steelhead spawning has been eliminated and rearing opportunities have been significantly reduced.

“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,” Elaine Placido, executive director for Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, said previously. “It’s a pretty inhospitable area for salmon in that portion of the river.”

Seeking support from Legislature

At its meeting Tuesday, the Clark County Council unanimously approved sending letters to the House Capital Budget Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee in support of the project. The council previously approved allocating up to $500,000 from conservation futures funds for the restoration project.

“This is a great project, and it fulfills a number of important things including 300 acres of floodplain restoration, reduces the flood risk to residents, a county building and neighboring aggregate mining operations,” Councilor Sue Marshall said during the meeting. “It provides local jobs and protects salmonid species. Southwest Washington deserves some of this funding.”

The Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership announced in September it was moving forward with the East Fork project after receiving a $7.74 million grant from the state Recreation and Conservation Office. To complete the project, it will need another $8.6 million in funding, which would come from the state Department of Ecology’s Floodplains by Design program.

If the Ecology program receives less than the $70 million requested, projects would be cut from the list entirely rather than scaling back the funding awarded to each.

“Ecology asked for enough funding for 11 projects, and we are number 11,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, communications and outreach associate for Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. “It’s not only all or nothing for the projects, but it’s all or nothing for Southwest Washington.”

Inslee’s budget includes $49.8 million for the program and would fund nine of the 11 projects on the list. Zimmer-Stucky said cutting the East Fork project leaves the statewide program only funding projects in the Puget Sound area.

Second project for partnership

This is the second major habitat restoration project for the partnership, which completed the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge project last summer. It would also be the largest habitat restoration project on the Lewis River, Zimmer-Stucky said in an earlier interview.

Clark County Public Works lands manager Kevin Tyler said there are many benefits to the project but chief among them is protecting salmon populations.

“The East Fork provides habitat for five of the listed species in the state of Washington,” Tyler said.

Flooding in the area has been an ongoing problem which would be addressed by the restoration project.

“Part of the proposal has been to help protect from flooding some of the structures on that lower portion of the Lewis River. They’ve identified up to 30 homes that would benefit from this floodplain restoration project and the county has a maintenance yard in that area that would be protected,” he added.

Tyler said Daybreak Regional Park has a new trail that would also be protected from future floods.

The Legislature convened for the 2023 session on Jan. 9 and has a long way to go before producing a capital budget. After the House and Senate each pass their versions of the budget, any differences will have to be reconciled. Leaders from both chambers will then negotiate a final budget to be submitted to the full Legislature. After final passage, the budget is delivered to the governor for signature.

The governor can veto all or part of the budget, eliminating funding for certain programs or services but cannot add funds not approved by the Legislature.