WASHOUGAL — Juvenile salmon face a gauntlet of perils on their difficult journey down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.
Dams, predators, degraded habitat, and polluted runoff from rural activities and urban development take their toll on young salmon. Those that survive will spend their adult lives in the Pacific before returning to their birth streams to spawn and die.
“They are really looking for flood plains to rest and rear and grow as they prepare to enter the ocean,” said Chris Collins, a principal restoration ecologist with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. “Research has shown that the better shape they are in when they hit the ocean, the higher chance of survival.”
The Steigerwald Floodplain Restoration Project, the largest project of its type attempted on the lower Columbia River, is designed to boost survival for a number of fish species: steelhead and cutthroat trout; chinook, coho and chum salmon; and Pacific and western brook lamprey.
After more than five years of planning, design and coordination, the project is close to construction. A ceremonial groundbreaking is set for 3:30 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, east of Washougal at the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge.
The 1,049-acre Steigerwald refuge is teeming with life. More than 200 of Clark County’s 300 bird species have been spotted at the refuge, along with 15 types of reptiles and amphibians, and more than 20 species of mammals, including deer, bats, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels and even an occasional cougar.
The collaborative project involves nearly a dozen public agencies and private groups, including the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Port of Camas-Washougal, the city of Washougal and Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, plus private landowners.
“I’ve got over 25 years in the refuge system,” said Chris Lapp, project leader for Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge complex, which includes Ridgefield, Steigerwald and two wildlife refuges, Franz Lake and Pierce, with no public access. “I cannot tell you of any project that has come up to the level of collaboration, the diversity of partnership and the ability for everyone to get on the same page.”
Fish, wildlife habitat
Upcoming construction is aimed at restoring habitat and controlling flooding. The existing levee along the Columbia River exacerbates flooding from Gibbons Creek and prevents the creek from naturally draining into the Columbia River.
About 2 1/4 miles of the levee will be removed, reconnecting the West’s greatest river to 960 acres of flood plain, which were blocked when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the levee in 1966.
The BPA faces legal requirements to offset the negative effects federal hydroelectric dams have on fish survival in the Columbia River and its tributaries. Habitat restoration is a critical component of meeting those requirements.
The project will attempt to turn back the clock and return the site to more of a natural state, allowing water from Gibbons Creek to inundate portions of the refuge and water from the Columbia to spill in when the river reaches different seasonal levels, creating rich habitat for fish and wildlife.
“The reconnection of the flood plain, the water levels within the refuge, will be undulating depending on the time of year,” Lapp said.
Jason Karnezis, estuary lead for the BPA, is confident that juvenile salmon will find their way into the restored flood plain.
“There’s a lot of good evidence in the scientific literature that says, ‘When you build it, they will come,’ ” he said.
Juvenile salmon, Collins said, tend to swim in shallow water near the shore to avoid predators, such as smallmouth bass and assorted birds.
Karnezis said nutrients will flow out of the flood plain into the Columbia’s main stem.
“Any fish that don’t go in will benefit as well,” he said.
Once the Columbia River and Gibbons Creek are reconnected to the wildlife refuge, water inundation will deter reed canary grass and other invasive species that out-compete native vegetation and degrade overall habitat value.
“This project basically resets the habitat to a more dynamic system,” Lapp said. “If you have diverse habitat, you will have diverse wildlife.”
To improve or maintain flood control, two setback levees will be built perpendicular to the Columbia River to protect the Port of Camas-Washougal’s industrial park, the city of Washougal’s wastewater treatment plant and private homes. Some 125 acres will be removed from a federally designated flood zone, including the sewage plant that serves 15,000 residents.
According to the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the project also will: re-establish 200 acres of native riparian forest; remove Gibbons Creek’s diversion structure, elevated channel and fish ladder, along with 2,500 feet of riprap from the Columbia River’s shoreline; and reduce the Port of Camas-Washougal’s flood management costs and eliminate the need for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to replace the failing diversion structure.
Collins said the project will improve hiking, wildlife watching and other recreation at the Steigerwald refuge, which attracts 90,000 visitors a year.
“We’re basically going to rebuild the trail system,” he said. “It will be a mile longer. But more importantly, it will be more diverse.”
The project also will raise about 1,200 feet of state Highway 14, Collins said. The average gain will be less than a foot but that will be enough to take the highway to the 500-year flood elevation, or a level with a 0.2 percent chance of flooding in any year.
The work is not expected to have a major effect on Highway 14 traffic, with two-way traffic maintained the majority of the time, Collins said.
The project’s overall budget likely will exceed $25 million. The BPA already has spent $5 million to $6 million on design and other pre-construction costs, Karnezis said.
Construction and reforestation are expected to cost about $20 million. The Washington State Department of Ecology will provide $4.5 million, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contributing $1 million. The BPA will cover the project’s remaining cost.
Collins said preliminary work already has started to control reed canary grass and other invasive species. Next up will be environmental enhancement, including adding logs for fish habitat, on 53 acres near the refuge’s parking lot.
Full-scale construction will begin in 2020 when work starts to build the two setback levies, along with raising Highway 14.
The biggest year for construction will be 2021. Portions of the existing levee will be removed. Major regrading, moving 1 million cubic yards of earth, will be done in 2021, along with rebuilding the trail system.
The project will officially wrap up in 2022 with monitoring and checking for erosion and other problems.
One downside to the project is public access will be restricted during construction.
The main entrance to Steigerwald refuge and Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail will be closed on weekdays, from Tuesday through Oct. 15, along with the refuge’s parking lot and restrooms.
The refuge will remain accessible via the Columbia River Dike Trail to the west, with parking and restrooms at Capt. William Clark Regional Park. The refuge’s trail north of the cottonwood tree stand also will be closed.
Next year, the parking lot will be closed for the entire year, but people will be able to access the refuge from the west. In 2021, the big year for construction, the entire refuge will be closed to the public.
“It’s going to be impactful,” Lapp said. “There’s no way around that.”
Refuge managers have worked closely with volunteer stewards and other supporters to get the word out about the upcoming closures, he said. Information will be posted online at refuge2020.info.
Lapp predicted the revamped refuge will provide “world-class wildlife viewing.”
“It’s going to be such an improvement I would say that a user of the refuge will look back and say, ‘That was worth the inconvenience,’ ” he said.