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Washougal City Council member and former mayor Molly Coston has never been so happy to be so wrong.
When she first heard about a plan to reconnect 965 acres of floodplain habitat to the Columbia River at the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, she doubted that it would ever come to fruition.
“I said that it couldn’t be done,” the Washougal city council woman said during a ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the refuge on Saturday, May 7. “I said, ‘The plan is awesome, (but) you’ll never be able to get all of the permits, you’ll never be able to pull off the collaboration, and you sure won’t be able to find all of the funding.’
“But they did it. They did it. I’m blown away by the project. I think it’s spectacular.”
The Steigerwald Lake refuge, part of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex, reopened to the public on Sunday, May 1, after a nearly two-year closure.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership closed the refuge to the public in June 2020 to begin work on a restoration project that eventually created more than 100 acres of wetland, reforested 250 acres of riparian habitat, planted more than 500,000 trees and shrubs, reconnected 965 acres of Columbia River floodplain, added 1.1 miles of trails and benefitted salmon in Gibbons Creek.
“It’s the largest habitat restoration project ever completed on the lower Columbia River,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife acting Pacific Region assistant director Christine Ogura. “Last fall, we had salmon spawning in the creek for the first time in decades. We are now seeing year-round access for salmon and lamprey; greater resting areas for migratory waterfowl; and new experiences for children and families to explore. This refuge is an oasis for both people and wildlife. We’re really excited to open the new trails and parking lot and to welcome visitors back to Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.”
A variety of local, regional and national organizations, including the cities of Camas and Washougal, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the Port of Camas-Washougal, the Washougal School District, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), USFW, the Washington Department of Transportation and the Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards, partnered together to complete the $32 million project.
“We all have different missions, but through our shared community and conservation visions, we accomplished something none of us could’ve done alone,” said Ogura, who added that the project will create more than 550 local jobs and contribute more than $75 million to the local economy. “You will not find a better example of collaboration, conservation and community than you’ll find right here at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.”
Elaine Placido, the executive director of the Portland-based Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, called the project a “phenomenal accomplishment” and a “crowning achievement.”
“I believe the Steigerwald reconnection project has created a blueprint — not just a blueprint for future floodplain restoration projects, but also a blueprint for collaboration,” she said. “This project was like a Jenga tower at the end of many, many block removals and setbacks. To get to where we are today, people worked through snow, wind, rain, lots and lots of mud, scorching heat and a global health pandemic. It was ambitious and enormous, and every partner played a central role in keeping it standing tall.”
The refuge had been cut off from the Columbia River since the 1960s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a 5.5-mile levee, which helped to reduce flood risk but also separated the Columbia River from its vast historic floodplain and exacerbated internal flooding from Gibbons Creek.
“The creek was constrained to an artificially elevated channel as it flowed through the refuge,” according to the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership’s website. “Even moderate rainfall events often caused flooding that spilled over into the Port of Camas-Washougal and other nearby municipal, commercial and residential properties. This internal flooding required the Port of Camas-Washougal to maintain a costly pumping system.”
“We’re absolutely thrilled about the enormous reduction in flood risk that this project also brings,” Port of Camas-Washougal Commission President Cassi Marshall said. “These new levees protect all of the neighboring areas, including our industrial park, which is such an economic hub for the entire southwest Washington region. Also, we’re really working really hard on conservation and energy efficient measures, and not having to pump the Gibbon Creek flood waters every year, that’s going to be a big boost to what we’re trying to accomplish, and we’re super excited about that, too.”
Caitlan Wagner, a fifth-grade science teacher at Helen Baller Elementary School in Camas, said that the refuge can help “foster youth who care and are connected to our local lands.”
“In the classroom, students are learning about topics such as structures and processes, systems, interactions, energy transfer, and the dynamics of ecosystems, as well as human impact and engineering design,” said Wagner, who brings her students to the refuge every year for educational field trips. “While learning about these topics in the classroom can be engaging, there’s something really magical that happens when we are able to ground all of these ideas into something real and local, and that, of course, is where Steigerwald fills a unique role. When students get a chance to get their hands dirty in the soil of their local land, it allows them to engage in learning in a whole new way.”
The BPA, the Washington Department of Ecology, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USFW and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation provided funding for the project.