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Let's Get Out There: Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge plans reopening after restoration project

The $31 million Steigerwald Reconnection Project is nearing completion after almost three years. It reconnected the refuge's floodplain & restored wildlife habitat.

WASHOUGAL, Wash. — This week's Let's Get Out There takes us to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge will reopen to the public on May 1 after more than two years of improvements to wildlife habitats and the floodplain.

The groves of cottonwood trees and wildlife sightings make the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge a special urban getaway.

“The refuge spans the urban wild interface between metro Vancouver and the Columbia River Gorge. So it's one of the first places you can go recreate in the Gorge,” said Chris Collins of the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. The nonprofit cares for the Columbia River form the Bonneville Dam out to the Pacific Ocean.

Credit: Jon Goodwin, KGW

The Steigerwald Lake refuge sits just east of Washougal, Washington on highway 14. It’s been closed for the past couple of years for much needed improvements.

“We've done a lot of these habitat projects over the years. Not at this scale,” said Collins.

The $31 million Steigerwald Reconnection Project will be completed in the coming months, and the refuge will reopen to the public on May 1 with a reopening ceremony on May 7. At the heart of the project was reconnecting the floodplain.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge Land Trust acquired 160 acres of land and transferred it to the refuge for expansion on the east side. The accomplishments include:

  • Removing 2.2 miles of Columbia River levee and connecting the river to its historic floodplain for the first time in more than 50 years.
  • Restoring salmon-bearing Gibbons Creek to its natural channel, while removing the fish ladder at the confluence of the creek and the Columbia River.
  • Constructing 1.6 miles of new setback levees to enhance protection of the Port of Camas-Washougal Industrial Park, city of Washougal wastewater treatment plant, and private residents.
  • Raising a portion of State Route 14 to the Columbia River’s 500-year flood level.
  • Moving and expanding the refuge parking lot.
  • Creating more than 100 acres of wetland and reforesting 250 acres of riparian habitat, planting more than 500,000 trees and shrubs and more than 14,000 pounds of native seeds.
  • Adding 1.1 miles of new trail to the urban refuge.
Credit: Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership
1,200 Students planted over 16,000 plants at the refuge

More than 500,000 native plants have been put in the ground over the last three years, and almost 2 million cubic yards of earth was essentially rearranged to allow the floodplain to handle more water, mitigating future flood risk, especially with the spring snow melt.

“Just the amount of water that's in the historic lake bed is drastically more, you know, maybe before we had 15 to 20 acres now we maybe have a couple of 100 acres,” said Eric Anderson, deputy project leader with the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Several partners teamed up with USFWS and the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership to make the project happen. The refuge’s levee system will have a perimeter trail with other trails for hikers, joggers, bikers, horseback riders and more. The true benefit is for the waterfowl, birds of prey and salmon.

“Fish have access to come from the Columbia River into the lake bed into the stream,” Anderson said. He noted steelhead have been spotted in Gibbons Creek for the first time in over a decade. “More numbers to the ocean means more numbers coming back.”

“It's such a great ecological uplift for the area, particularly being able to restore this amount of habitat in the Portland metro area is really a phenomenal opportunity,” said Collins.

“And hopefully people will come here, learn about restoration and respect what's happened here,” Anderson added.

You can find more information on the Steigerwald Reconnection Project here.

Let's Get Out there airs once a week on KGW's 4 p.m. newscast and The Good Stuff, which airs Monday-Thursday at 7 p.m. We're including viewer photos for this series. You can text your photos to 503-226-5088 or post them on the KGW Facebook page.