Though shovels haven’t hit the base of the Ridgefield Pits, work is underway to prepare for an undertaking to revitalize the land along the East Fork Lewis River.
On a sunny morning July 11, staff from county, state and federal agencies, alongside some from the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, descended onto the western bank of the river to the area taken by water during a 1996 flood.
That flood brought the river into an irregular flow among the pits, which has affected the local ecosystem. The reclamation project has received about $20 million in state and federal funding, including roughly $5.5 million in the 2023 state capital budget through the Floodplains By Design program.
Washington state Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, was one of the elected officials who got to wade into the water on the project site during the tour. Abbarno was the House Capital Budget Committee ranking member during this year’s session when the money was secured.
“It’s about habitat restoration. It’s about economic development. And it’s also about quality of life,” Abbarno said about the project.
Abbarno visited along with Clark County Councilor Sue Marshall. Marshall’s district includes the area of the project, and she advocated for the state funding earlier this year.
Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership Principal Restoration Ecologist Paul Kolp said the project was at 60% of design as of the visit, with plans to begin heavy work next year. The tour went along several of the pits, some more separate from the river’s flow than others.
“Our goal is we’re going to have to make this look like the river,” Kolp said while looking over one of the more separated pits.
Kolp said the water in the pits would reach about mid-80 degrees fahrenheit in a few weeks.
“It’s really, really hot, and there’s no oxygen,” Kolp said, “and it’s not good for anything.”
The project had a number of challenges, including how to work under the towering utility towers of Bonneville Power Administration that cross the western edge. In some cases the project would have to deal with the National Environmental Protection Act, which meant federal review.
“Anytime you touch anything under BPA powerlines, (it involves) NEPA,” Kolp said. “And that’s a long process.”
There were many gravel mines near rivers in the Pacific Northwest, Kolp said, with most being in California. He said restoration efforts in those places were able to bring back some of the affected areas, but not all of what bears mining’s scars.
“What we’re trying to do is do all of it,” Kolp said. “(We’re) trying to reconnect the floodplain.”
Kolp noted the foreign and invasive species that have taken hold among the area’s flora.
“You have these wonderful blackberries … why is this here?” Kolp asked. It, among numerous other plants, was present in the area because it was opportunistic.
“It shouldn’t really be through here, and so that’s going to be a big lift for us,” Kolp said.
Nonnative species on the site include japanese knotweed, butterfly bush, himalayan blackberries and reed canarygrass, the latter of which becomes a sort of monoculture where it grows, Clark County Public Works Land Coordinator Denielle Cowley said.
The county’s government is paying attention to the estuary partnership’s work. The county hopes to buy land under its Legacy Lands program to support its East Fork Lewis River Greenway project, Cowley said.
Currently the county owns sizable acreage to the east and west of the pits, with plans to acquire more as part of an overarching plan for the area.
“That’s the intent, just to have another beautiful greenway that will be very large,” Cowley said.
Having county ownership allows for projects similar to the East Fork restoration to happen, she said.
“We have the canvas, they bring the paint,” Cowley said.
The group met up with biologists sampling and monitoring the pits in preparation of the more heavy work for restoration. Part of that work included finding juvenile lamprey, a jawless fish that has made a home in the pits, but also is native to the East Fork Lewis River proper.
Lamprey are an important part of any ecosystem they’re a part of, given how calorie-packed they are, United States Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Joe Skalicky said.
“They are a swimming bacon cheeseburger,” Skalicky said.
The ones the biologists were looking for during the tour were at the start of their life cycle, only a few inches long. A fully-grown Pacific lamprey could grow multiple feet, with a jawless mouth featuring rows of teeth. Lampreys are some of the oldest living animals in terms of keeping their relative body plans, Skalicky said.
The biologists used devices to produce a limited electric shock that stimulated animals in their vicinity and made them rise to the surface. When Skalicky placed the device into a pond, dozens of juvenile lampreys wriggled out of the mud.
Though he began his work with salmonids, Skalicky said after moving to lampreys, he never wants to go back. The nature of the research is so fresh, compared to how past recovery efforts focus on those salmon varieties.
“We still have this myopic, single-minded approach in terms of how we manage our species,” Skalicky said.
Abbarno got a crash course in the lifecycle and importance of the animals, which look like eels but are biologically distinct.
“I learned more about lampreys than I thought I ever would,” Abbarno said.
After touching down and hearing from those involved with the project, he said the East Fork restoration was a solid use of state funds.
“It seems like they have a really good plan, and have been contemplating this for a long time,” Abbarno said.
He said having a community-based plan made the project all the more worthy of state funding.
“It’s community-up, not Olympia-down,” Abbarno said.
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