For more than 50 years, a man-made earthen levee has cut off the Columbia River from its natural, fertile floodplain at what now constitutes Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the western Columbia Gorge. As a result, salmon, steelhead, and lamprey, some of which are endangered or threatened, have lost access to a safe rest stop on their migratory journeys to and from the ocean.
Next year, however, construction crews will breach that barrier, removing over two miles of it, in order to reconnect the river to the refuge—the largest restoration project ever on the lower Columbia, and the culmination of a decades-long vision by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and its multiple partners.
“This project wouldn’t exist without Friends having acquired Steigerwald Shores,” says Chris Collins, a principal restoration ecologist with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. He’s referring to a 175-acre riverfront parcel, formerly part of a cattle ranch abutting the refuge on its eastern border. In 2017, after eyeing the tract for decades, Friends finally purchased it with funds from its Preserve the Wonder campaign.
“Our role was to buy the land as soon as it became available, and before someone else developed it,” says Friends Land Trust Director Dan Bell. As an intermediary landowner, Friends held the property until the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service obtained their funding to purchase it in April 2020. This is how, in part, the refuge has grown to more than 1,000 acres—piece by piece, over 34 years, through private and land trust acquisitions, Bell explains. By securing Steigerwald Shores, the Columbia’s current levee system could finally be reconfigured, the cornerstone of the entire restoration project.
On June 1, crews began preparing the area for the eventual 2.2-mile river-levee removal, scheduled for next summer or early fall. So far, they have transported about 500,000 cubic yards of earth from the site’s floodplains to its eastern and western borders, where they are building two new setback levees to protect surrounding properties from flooding, explains Collins.