Steigerwald Lake is a US Fish & Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) situated along the banks of the Columbia near Washougal, Washington, at the "Gateway" to the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Steigerwald NWR was first protected in 1987 and now comprises 1,049 acres of wetlands, fields, woodlands, and a "tamed" Gibbons Creek. Since it was established, though, the Columbia River has been cut off from the Refuge by a 5.5 mile levee.
Read more about the project below, or find the latest updates at the Refuge 20/20 Blog.
The US Army Corps of Engineers constructed the levee to reduce flood risk, however in doing so the Columbia was separated from its vast historic floodplain. And although the levee protects the Refuge and adjacent properties from Columbia River floods, it exacerbates internal flooding from Gibbons Creek, which spills over into the Port of Camas-Washougal and other nearby municipal, commercial and residential properties. This internal flooding requires the Port to maintain a costly pumping system to handle even moderate rainfall events.
The collaborative Steigerwald Reconnection Project will reconnect 965 acres of Columbia River floodplain, reduce flood risk, improve habitat for fish and wildlife, and create new trails for recreation at the Refuge.
The project will take three years to construct, and we are now in the final year before the Refuge reopens in spring 2022.
We broke ground in summer 2019, when BioHabitats, Inc., a Portland-based restoration company, anchored 84 large wood habitat structures in the Gibbons Creek historic alluvial fan. Some of the wood installed was donated by BNSF Railroad. The structures will provide habitat to a variety of species and help stabilize the area when Gibbons Creek is released into its alluvial fan in fall 2021.
Community members and students were an active part of the project, planting native trees within the alluvial fan and around the habitat structures. Meanwhile, workers with Ash Creek Forest Management treated invasive species and reforested another 53 acres of the alluvial fan.
Over the 2020 and 2021 construction period, crews from Rotschy, Inc. are building setback levees to protect the nearby industrial park and other landowners. Once these levees are complete, crews will remove more than 2 miles of the current levee and create four direct connections with the Columbia River, allowing for seasonal flooding and providing unfettered access to the area for salmon and lamprey.
Crews are also reconfiguring Gibbons Creek as it runs through the Refuge, creating a more natural, meandering channel, adding large wood and gravel riffles, and finally removing its elevated channel, weirs, and a fish ladder. See below for a timelapse of the restoration of the Gibbons Creek channel.
There are also over 115 acres of new wetlands being created, along with extensive replanting with native species.
In coordination with the Washington Department of Transportation, the project also raised State Route 14 three feet to bring it up to the Columbia River's 500 year flood stage.
During fall 2021, once the trees and shrubs planted by students, volunteers, and crews throughout the alluvial fan are well-rooted, Gibbons Creek will be released from the confinement of its elevated channel and redirected onto the alluvial fan. The established plants and the wood structures will provide immediate cover and refuge for fish, herptiles, and birds.
The project will also include a new parking lot and amenities, viewing platforms, and add more than a mile of trail to the Refuge’s trail system, offering visitors a more “natural” path than the current linear trail, which follows the levee.
Over the three years of construction, the project also creates 503 local family wage jobs and provide opportunities for thousands of local students and community members to volunteer and contribute to the project.
More Project Videos:
Actual Miles Restored