When the Levee Falls

Wetlands Restoration at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

By Dana Bivens, a Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Northern Harrier at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo credit: Ken Pitts

Nestled at the gateway to the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a jewel on the Columbia River. This 1,049-acre natural oasis is part of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex and boasts fields, streams, mountain views, and hiking trails for wildlife viewing.

The refuge is, however, haunted by a remnant of southern Washington’s past. In 1966, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a five-and-a-half-mile levee, which stretches along what is now the refuge’s southern boundary. This levee was designed to protect the Port of Camas-Washougal from seasonal flooding, but there was a flaw in the design.

The Problem

Gibbons Creek, a small tributary of the Columbia River, flows from the hillsides above the city of Washougal and the surrounding community before emptying into the Columbia River. The creek historically fed Steigerwald Lake and its wetlands, creating essential habitat for salmon, lamprey, waterfowl, and many other species that relied on the seasonally flooded habitat.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Columbia River levee, Gibbons Creek was forced into an artificial channel. When the creek seasonally flooded, its channel boundaries were too low to support rising waters, causing internal flooding. Like water filling a bathtub, the overflowing creek spilled into the basin within the levee, which created costly flood issues for nearby commercial and residential properties. The Port was forced to maintain an expensive pump system to handle even moderate flooding events.

Due to the artificial stream channel, Steigerwald Lake, pictured here, is a fraction of its historical size. Photo credit: Brent Lawrence/USFWS

While in some areas the channel exacerbated flooding, it had the opposite effect on the refuge lands, which need seasonal overflow to feed its wetlands. Because of the levee design, the refuge lowlands were starved of flood water from the Columbia River during the melting season. This degraded the quality of the habitat and hundreds of acres of wetlands were lost, negatively impacting local wildlife.

What can we do?

In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration, Washington State Department of Transportation, the Port of Camas-Washougal, Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, the Friends of the Columbia River, and other partners came together to plan a habitat restoration project. The goal of the project is simple… restore Gibbons Creek to its historical path and reconnect it with Steigerwald Lake and the Columbia River. Reestablishing the natural stream channel for Gibbons Creek will reduce flood risk and abatement costs for the local municipality, restore 965 acres of fish and wildlife habitat, and improve recreational opportunities on the refuge.

Project design map. Photo credit: Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership

To do this, workers will need to dig a new stream channel and eventually remove portions of the five-and-a-half-mile U.S. Army Corps levee. A team of environmental engineers, biologists, and estuary specialists spent years designing the project, taking into account the species’ and local community’s needs.

This $25 million undertaking is the largest habitat restoration project ever attempted on the Columbia River. Over three years of construction, the project will create 503 local jobs, add $67.4 million to the local economy, and increase flood protection for the neighboring community, the Port of Camas-Washougal, and Washougal’s wastewater treatment plant. The refuge is also expected to attract thousands more annual visitors to the restored wetland habitat, which will be a hot spot for birdwatching and wildlife viewing.

What has been done so far?

The restoration project will take place in multiple phases. Beginning in 2020, workers reestablished the natural channel of Gibbons Creek. In addition to limiting the wetland’s yearly flooding, the high, straight sides of the artificial stream channel made poor wildlife habitat. To find shelter from predators and forage for food, young salmon and other aquatic species need undulating banks, rocky bottoms, and structures such as fallen trees.

Left: In 2020, workers began digging the new stream channel for Gibbons Creek, north of State Route 14. The crew dug a winding path and placed woody debris in bends and turns to provide foraging and sheltering habitat for young salmon and other aquatic species. Photo credit: Juliette Fernandez/USFWS. Right: Gibbons Creek in the same location during the summer of 2021 after a year of regrowth. Photo credit: Dana Bivens/USFWS

To accomplish this, the refuge brought in heavy machinery to dig a new, winding channel that followed the original stream path. Workers placed fallen trees among oxbow turns and soft bends to provide critical sheltering habitat. Before redirecting the water into the restored pathway, teams of biologists and volunteers removed the existing aquatic wildlife from the old stream. Over multiple stages, wader-wearing volunteers and staff armed with nets and buckets gently caught hundreds of salmon fry, dozens of freshwater mussels, nearly 14,000 lamprey, and thousands of other fish before drawing down and redirecting the water to the new stream. Rescued wildlife was then released upstream, unharmed.

Left: Staff and volunteers work to remove wildlife from the stream before it is redirected. Center: Crews getting ready to redirect stream water. Right: One of the captured fish that was released upstream. Photo credit: Dana Bivens/USFWS

The next step in the project was quite a lift… literally. State Route 14, a major road that follows the Columbia River, passes through Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge and bisects the floodplain. Before removing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee, the roadway needed to be raised three feet to bring it up to the Columbia River’s 500-year flood stage. That way, seasonal floods will not affect the road and local commuters. With the help of the Washington Department of Transportation, the roadway was successfully raised the summer of 2020.

What is happening now?

The biggest and most impressive part of the project is currently underway. Teams of heavy equipment operators from Roschy Inc. are hard at work creating two new setback levees along the eastern and western refuge boundaries. When the stream channel and wetlands are reconnected, yearly Columbia River flooding will create valuable wetland habitat, but everyone wants to ensure commercial and residential properties outside of the project area remain protected. The two new set back levees to the east and west of the refuge will make sure floodwaters stay in the recovered wetland and not in local backyards. Construction began in 2020, and when completed later this year, heavy machine operators will have moved over 1.0 million cubic yards of earth to create the 47-foot earthen dams.

Heavy machinery in a construction site
Heavy machinery is used to create two earthen dams at the eastern and western ends of the refuge. These setback levees will protect local residents and business from flood waters, while allowing seasonal wetlands to flood within the refuge. Photo credit: Dana Bivens/USFWS

What are the next steps?

Once the setback levees are complete, crews will begin deconstructing parts the original U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levee along the Columbia River to allow an outlet for Gibbons Creek. Again, heavy equipment operators will move thousands of tons of soil and rock and carve four channels into the levee, reconnecting the river with the floodplain. By late fall of 2021 after three years of work, crews will have restored the natural stream channel, reconnected the stream to the river, built two new setback levees, raised the road, and ultimately moved over 1.6 million cubic yards of material. For the first time in over half a century, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge will live up to its namesake as water fills its lake once again.

Left: Habitat restoration work is underway in this area. The photo shows the site prior to regrowth and planting. Right: Area that was restored in 2020. After only one year, natural vegetation has quickly reestablished itself in the area. Photo credit: Dana Bivens/USFWS

In addition to reduced flood risk, the yearly fluctuation of water within the refuge will help promote the growth of native vegetation while controlling invasive species, such as reed canary grass. By restoring the natural hydrology and flora, wildlife such as bald eagles, salmon, lamprey, beavers, and waterfowl will have more room to thrive. The refuge will also expand its trail network by roughly a mile. The new trails will flank wetlands, cross streams, and border the Columbia River, increasing recreational access for the 90,000 visitors who come to the refuge annually. Over the winter, volunteers will plant over 350,000 trees and shrubs and by the spring of 2022, visitors will be welcomed back to view wildlife in the newly rehabilitated wetland.

The trails and bridges will offer visitors a chance to view wildlife like this great blue heron. Photo credit: Thomas Burchill

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of this project is the partnership that made it possible. Dozens of professionals from multiple agencies dedicated millions of dollars and countless hours of work to restore a landscape that will benefit the entire community. This investment in improving our natural infrastructure has created jobs for the local community while promising future environmental benefits for wildlife and visitors… we are building back better for the American public and our natural lands. This type of partnerships is the hallmark of conservation success stories and is a model for future projects where habitat restoration and community protection are one in the same. When we come together and pool our resources and expertise, amazing things can happen.

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