Steigerwald Reconnection Project

Steigerwald Reconnection Project logoSteigerwald 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.

 

Steigerwald aerial photo
Aerial view of Steigerwald in 2016

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. 
 

Gibbons Creek
Gibbons Creek at Steigerwald, January 2020

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.
 

Steigerwald Ground Breaking
Partners break ground at Steigerwald.

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. 

 

Adding large wood habitat structures
Adding large wood habitat structures to the floodplain.

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.
 

Planting willows with the help of an auger
Planting willows with the aid of an auger

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.
 

An excavator digs through a massive levee. The Columbia River is visible through the breach.
Crews breach the old levee to reconnect the Refuge to the Columbia River.

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.
 

Gibbons Creek at flood stage, nearly reaching the bridge over SR 14.
Gibbons Creek flooding in 2015.

 

a river channel with large wood structures and gravel bars
The new channel for Gibbons Creek features large wood and gravel to create salmon habitat.

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. 
 

wapato emerges from a wetland
Wapato stands already exist in Scaup Pond (pictured). Staff have planted additional sites with seeds and bulbs.

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.

Steigerwald concept plan

 

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:

Download a brochure about the project.

Find the latest updates on the project on the Refuge 20/20 site.

 

  • Actual Miles Restored

    4.00

  • Reach

    G

  • Start Year

    2013

  • End Year

    2022

  • Total Acres

    965

  • Type

    Habitat


Project Partners
Bonneville Power Administration
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad
Camas School District
City of Camas
City of Washougal
Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards
Friends of the Columbia Gorge
Port of Camas-Washougal
US Army Corps of Engineers
US Fish & Wildlife Service
Washington Department of Transportation
Washougal School District

Funders
Bonneville Power Administration
Camas-Washougal Community Chest
Washington Department of Ecology
National Fish & Wildlife Foundation
US Fish and Wildlife Service
One Tree Planted / Protect the Pod
Arbor Day Foundation