Just about seven miles east of Vancouver’s city core, a nonprofit’s endeavor to sustain an almost century-old legacy of fish rearing is about to begin.
Staff from Columbia Springs, an environmental education center, and their partners ceremoniously broke ground on Thursday for its West Biddle Dam replacement, a project three years in the making.
“We understand the importance of preserving our heritage (and) of honoring our past while embracing the possibilities of the future,” said Katherine Cory, Columbia Springs executive director. “That’s what this dam allows us to do.”
The current 86-foot structure is situated on Columbia Springs’ 100-acre natural site near Interstate 205, where traces of urban living dissolve amid its overgrown reeds and grass, maples and cedars and bodies of water.
The dam’s replacement, spanning a total of 98 feet, will look nearly identical to its predecessor with a few new additions, including a spillway and crossing. Rounds of geotechnical surveys in 2021 revealed the nearly 100-year-old dam was leaking, an apparent symptom defined by nearby soil dowsed with Biddle Lake’s water.
West Biddle Dam, as physically small as it is, has a significant reach throughout the region.
It supplies the Vancouver Trout Hatchery with steady currents of water, where around 65,000 rainbow trout are raised every year, said Bryce Glaser, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Southwest Washington fish program manager. The hatchery also nurtures young steelhead and chum salmon for the region’s fish recreation and recovery programs.
Fish don’t naturally traverse through Columbia Springs, though its water provides the proper conditions for rearing hatchery fish. Its waters bubble with cold spring water, which is ideal for the trout and salmon that are eventually planted in Lacamas Lake, Battle Ground Lake and Klineline Pond, as well as other local waters for recreational fishing. Some are even released as far away as Goose Lake in the Columbia River Gorge.
“We are a place like no other. There are other hatcheries that have other relationships with other nonprofits, but it’s not the same as here,” Cory said. “We are this urban oasis of exploration, and we want people to come here every single day, from dawn until dusk.”
Fish and Wildlife also manages its regional chum salmon program at the hatchery, which raises and relocates the fish — listed under the Endangered Species Act — into Duncan Creek below Bonneville Dam and the East Fork Lewis River.
Washington’s 2021 capital budget awarded a $1.8 million grant to Columbia Springs to replace West Biddle Lake Dam, though costs grew, eventually leading to its current $2.2 million price tag.
“To me, this is a hidden gem in our community,” said Republican Rep. Paul Harris, who serves Vancouver’s 17th Legislative District, where the project lies. “I hope you agree this (project) is worth the money. It’s something we need to preserve.”
Spencer Biddle, son of Henry Biddle — who owned and preserved Beacon Rock in the early 1900s — built the dams in 1925 to rear fish that would be served in train dining cars. In 1938, management transferred to Fish and Wildlife, which began managing it as the Vancouver Trout Hatchery. The latter operation was a local project through the Works Progress Administration, a federal program that employed people during the Great Depression.
In the decades that followed, Columbia Springs was protected from development — particularly during Vancouver’s population boom during World War II —so ecological preservation and fish rearing could continue.
“I don’t think people recognize enough how rich the history of this particular location is,” said Jim Malinowski, a commissioner for Clark Public Utilities, which partners with Columbia Springs.
Construction was originally planned to start in 2022, but permitting for the dam’s historic preservation, paired with increased labor and supply costs, prolonged the process. Heron Loop trail access will be rerouted until the dam’s anticipated completion in October, otherwise the site and its roads will remain open.
Columbia Springs is an abundant educational resource, connecting thousands of students a year who visit on field trips to the natural world while emphasizing the value of stewardship, Cory said.
The organization expects to incorporate the state’s Since Time Immemorial curriculum, a course covering local Indigenous history, into its Salmon in the Classroom program that explains a salmon’s life cycle, biology and habitat.
“(It) speaks to both what we want to do helping people know more about and care for a space, but also what the goals of historic preservation are,” she said. “(It will) help people remember where they came from and where we’ve been.”
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.