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Habitat restoration project set at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge

The largest habitat restoration project ever attempted on the lower Columbia River begins Monday at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The project, nearly seven years in the making and involving nearly a dozen public agencies and private groups, aims to ease fish passage, mitigate flood risks and boost recreation at the 1,049-acre refuge. It’s expected to take two years to complete, with more than 500 people working at the site, at a more than $25 million price tag.

“We’ve done all the planning we can do, and now it’s really time to get down to work,” said Jason Karnezis, BPA Estuary Program lead. “Support around this project is a good indicator that, ‘Hey, we’re ready to do this,’ and it’s exciting to see this come to fruition.”

This year, crews will begin to slightly raise state Highway 14 above the 500-year flood level. The raise will allow a realignment of a portion of Gibbons Creek, relocation of the refuge parking lot and construction of setback levees to protect surrounding areas from flooding, including the Port of Camas-Washougal.

“The Steigerwald Reconnection Project is a great project which covers a realm of economic and public benefits from environmental, recreation and flood protection,” said David Ripp, the port’s executive officer.

Intermittent lane closures will take place on the highway between Monday and Sept. 30.

More than 125 people will be working on the project this summer alone, said Chris Collins, a principal restoration ecologist with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. Collins also said that the construction will adhere to state job site requirements to curb the spread of COVID-19.

An easement with BNSF Railroad is the final hurdle to a full start to construction. The agreement conversations have been ongoing for a while, and project leaders are “excited to wrap it up,” Collins said.

Next year will be the most impactful construction period. After the setback levies are finished, about 2 1/4 miles of the existing Columbia River levee will be removed, reconnecting the river to its historic floodplain.

“Upon completion, this large-scale restoration project will provide healthy habitat to support native wildlife into the future,” said Eric Anderson, a project leader with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Additionally, the new trail system will create a user experience that invites visitors to reconnect and engage with the restored landscape.”

Crews will also, among many other things, restore 115 acres of wetland habitat, build a larger parking lot and restrooms, add an additional mile of trail and plant native trees and shrubs. Habitat restoration is a major component of the BPA’s legal requirements to curb negative effects of federal hydroelectric dams on the river.

“It looks kind of like a Mars or moon landing,” Karnezis said of the scope of what the construction will look like.

The refuge parking lot will permanently close Monday. Until July 6, visitors can access the dike trail from Captain William Clark Park east to the Fish Ladder. Interior trails, including Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail that connects to the dike trail near Redtail Lake and the refuge’s seasonal trail that connects to the dike trail just east of the fish ladder, will also be closed.

From July 6 through Oct. 2, the entire refuge will be closed. After that, it will close again in April.

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