Officials give Chinook River project update

FORT COLUMBIA STATE PARK - There was a full house at the Fort Columbia Theater Feb. 22 as a number of federal, state and local agencies gathered to report on a proposed Chinook River Estuary Restoration project.

Speakers at the meeting included Robert Warren, director of Sea Resources in Chinook; Bernard Klatte, a fish biologist with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Tarang Khangaonkar, a hydrologist with Battelle; Dan Golner and John Axford of Ducks Unlimited; and Richard Hawkins with the Washington Department of Transportation.

Other partners in the project are Natural Resources Conservation Service, Columbia Land Trust, Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA Fisheries, Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership and University of Washington.

Warren started the meeting by telling the group that during the 1800s, the river's estuary was "unique and more accessible to the ocean." He said it contained a complex network of channels that was home to a huge variety of species.

In the 1920s, a tide gate was installed at the mouth of the river to "eliminate tidal influences for agriculture along the river. This changed the character of the landscape," Warren said. Currently, the old gate leaks and lets fresh water out, but doesn't let tidal water in. The question now is how to increase ecological and community benefits of the river, he said.

The Corps of Engineers joined the project recently to bring in funding and expertise.

The Columbia River has "suffered considerable loss of critical estuarine habitats over the past 150 years because of diking, filling, dredging and dredged-material disposal, jetty construction and operation of the river's hydropower system, impairing the estuary's capacity to support historic abundance of many fish and wildlife species," Warren said.

The Chinook River is the second-most-western salmon-bearing tributary to flow into the Columbia River, he said. The project "represents one of the best immediate opportunities in the Columbia River Basin to restore a significant amount of estuarine habitat."

By removing the existing tide gate, tidal influence will be restored to between 800 and 1,100 acres of the estuary - nearly 60 percent of its historical area, according to a Sea Resources handout.

The goals of the project are: To increase the abundance and life history diversity of salmon stocks that use the Chinook River estuary as rearing habitat, improve water-quality conditions in the lower Chinook River, improve access to the estuary for juvenile and adult salmon, restore historic plant community structure, and restore the historic structure of the estuary.

Actions will include removal of the existing tide gate at the river's mouth, filling artificial drainage ditches, reconnecting historic tidal channels to the main-stem Chinook River and construction of a levee and tide gate system to protect adjacent landowners.

Columbia Land Trust has acquired 872 acres in the area donated by Washington State University and funding has been secured to acquire an additional 200 acres.

During the meeting, Khangaonkar presented a computerized inundation model of what would happen to the area under normal and 100-year-flood conditions. This information will be used to place the new tide gate and levee system so private property owners will be protected.

The economic impact to the community when the project is completed will be huge, Warren said.

"An average 80 percent of funds will remain in the county and the educational opportunities for local students are unprecedented. Kids already are spending time in the field and applying what they learn in school. This experience will help them when they apply to colleges and in their careers."

And, Warren said, Sarah Hawkins, a flood management specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency National Flood Insurance Program, has suggested that the proposed changes in the river could lower local residents' flood insurance rates.

Klatte said a number of Corps of Engineers projects had been cut from the president's budget this year. Not the Chinook project, though, and $5 million is available - $3.2 million from the Corps of Engineers and $1.8 million from other sponsors.

The schedule for the project indicates that a feasibility study will be completed by fiscal year 2005, "at the latest," Klatte said, with construction completed by fiscal year 2006.

Ducks Unlimited will design and build the levee and culverts; WSDOT will be designing and building a new bridge over the mouth of the river on Highway 101.

Hawkins, with WSDOT, said the existing 34-foot bridge will be replaced by a 200-foot bridge 44 feet upstream, and Highway 101 will be realigned and straightened. He said the highway won't be closed during construction but there will be a few instances of a one-lane road with flaggers. Construction won't begin until the levees are completed.

Sediment is building up in the river, Warren said, raising the water table over the past six years at Sea Resources. "If nothing is done it will get worse. We're not trying to get the river back to what it was 200 years ago. We want to make it viable again. If the water table continues to rise, Sea Resources will float away."

Warren wound up the meeting by telling Chinook residents in the audience that their comments are "taken seriously. My job is to restore the watershed and we need community dialogue or it's meaningless. This is an opportunity to improve the river system." He said last month's heavy rainfall is proof that sediment buildup in the river "will just get worse. I encourage Chinook residents to come by Sea Resources and talk to us."

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