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KATU: Everyday Heroes: Reconnecting Steigerwald Refuge to the Columbia River

December 4, 2020
Categorie(s): In the Press

By Stuart Tomlinson, KATU (view original link, including video)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Sometimes we find that our Everyday Heroes are part of a larger group of people working to make life better for their neighbors and the planet.

One such group is working right now to transform a section of land along the Columbia River and return a wildlife refuge to a more natural state.

For centuries, the wetlands around Steigerwald Lake, just east of Vancouver, were seasonally flooded. The flooding created a safe haven for wildlife.

A levee built in the 1960s put an end to the flooding, but it also allowed invasive species to move in, and the wetlands were essentially cut off from the river.

That's all about to change, thanks to the largest floodplain restoration project on the lower Columbia River.

“The opportunity to do a project of this size in the lower Columbia, especially around the Portland-metro area, is pretty astounding,” said Dan Bell, the land trust director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

A plan to remove the levee got the green light in 2016, when Friends of the Columbia Gorge purchased private property next to the refuge.

“We were fortunate to just to play a really important, integral bridge role there that was essential to get the project off the ground,” Bell said. "That whole refuge has been built piece by piece, parcel by parcel, and this was one of those key linchpin parcels.”

More than a half a million cubic yards of earth has been removed since the project began.

When the 1,000-acre refuge is reconnected to the river, seasonal floods will allow native plants and more wildlife to return.

“All the credit in the world to Chris (Collins)and his group at the lower Columbia Estuary Partnership for putting together a project that has a lot of benefits for both users of the property, the neighbors, and all of us who live in the gorge," Bell said.

One of the neighbors who will see benefits is the Port of Camas-Washougal.

“It’ll reduce their flood risk and save them a lot of operational and maintenance costs,” Chris Collins, of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, said. ”It’s really a project that offers so many different benefits, from flood prevention and flood control to better wildlife habitats, and a new recreational trail out there.”

Two new setback levees and raising a section of SR-14 will help prevent floodwaters from doing any damage.

The refuge attracts 90,000 visitors a year. When it reopens to the public in February 2022, there will be an additional mile of trails to enjoy and two new bridges.

“The trail will actually weave into and out of the refuge and will really put people in close contact with a lot of the restored habitats,” Collins said. “We’ll reconnect about 965 acres of historic flood plain -- that benefits waterfowl, it benefits juvenile salmon, it benefits lamprey, wetland habitats.”

When the refuge is reconnected, seasonal floods will allow native plant species to return, while portions of invasive vegetation is removed during construction.

“That inundation is often enough -- you know, depending on where you are and the depth and duration. That’s often enough to really, at least, suppress those invasive species,” Collins said.

Bonneville Power funded the design and permitting for the project, with large contributions coming from the Washington Department of Ecology, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Foundation.