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 approximately 1,200 acres of wetlands, fields, woodlands, and a channelized 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 is reconnecting 965 acres of Columbia River floodplain, reducing flood risk from Gibbons Creek, improving habitat for fish and wildlife, and creating new trails for recreation at the Refuge.
The project will take three years to construct, and work is 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 help stabilize the area and support a variety of species once Gibbons Creek was released into its alluvial fan in fall 2021.
Community members and students have been an active part of the project, planting native trees within the alluvial fan and around the habitat structures. Meanwhile, workers with certified B Corp. Ash Creek Forest Management treated invasive species and reforested another 53 acres of the alluvial fan.
Over the 2020 and 2021 construction seasons, crews from Vancouver-based Rotschy, Inc. built setback levees to the east and west to protect the nearby Port of Camas-Washougal industrial park and other landowners, while allowing the refuge to be reconnected to the Columbia River.
In summer of 2021, Rotschy crews removed more than 2 miles of the current levee and created four direct connections with the Columbia River, allowing for seasonal flooding and providing unfettered access to the area for salmon and lamprey.
A critical component of reconnecting the refuge was reconfiguring Gibbons Creek as it flows through the Refuge. For decades, the creek was diverted by a weir and contrained to an artificial elevated canal before it connected to the Columbia River through a fish ladder, This configuration also caused flooding, as Gibbons Creek frequently overflowed its channel. This internal flooding cost the Port of Camas-Washougal thousands of dollars in pumping and maintenance costs.
Before Gibbons could be released from its elevated canal, crews from Washougal’s LKE Corporation created a more natural, meandering channel, and added large wood and gravel riffles. Finally, in fall 2021, crews from Rotschy removed the weir, elevated channel, and fish ladder. See below for a timelapse of the restoration of the Gibbons Creek channel north of State Route 14.
There are also over 115 acres of new wetlands being created, along with extensive replanting with native species including wapato.
In coordination with the Washington Department of Transportation, the project raised State Route 14 three feet to bring it up to the Columbia River's 500 year flood stage.
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 previous linear trail, which followed the former 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