Commentary: An opportunity for extraordinary East Fork Lewis River reclamation


Do you know which river holds the Washington state record for the largest steelhead ever caught? 

The champion is Clark County’s very own East Fork Lewis River. Caught in 1980 and weighing in at 32 pounds, 12 ounces, this record-setting fish weighed as much as the average 3-year-old child.

In addition to drawing recreational fishers from far and wide, the river has played a central role in the development of Clark County. For nearly a century aggregate mining along the river fueled the county’s growth. This year though, the East Fork Lewis River is offering a new kind of economic development to rural Clark County: floodplain reclamation.  

 Our region is on the brink of securing $8.6 million for floodplain reclamation on the  East Fork Lewis River in the state’s capital budget through the Department of Ecology’s Floodplains by Design program. These funds would immediately be used to hire local construction crews to restore a three-mile stretch of the East Fork Lewis River from Daybreak Regional Park to nine former gravel mines known as the Ridgefield Pits.  

A little background: The river breached bank level and overtook the Ridgefield Pits in the historic flood of 1996. The river continues its disrupted flow through the Ridgefield Pits impacting fish habitat, causing severe erosion and increasing flood risk. 

This increased flood risk jeopardizes neighboring homes, an active mining operation, and taxpayer-owned properties like a Clark County road maintenance facility and Daybreak Regional Park. 

Securing an investment from the Washington State Legislature for floodplain reclamation will restore the river’s path through its historic floodplain and protect investments made by homeowners, businesses and taxpayers, while also enhancing prime salmon and steelhead habitat.  

 The Lower East Fork Floodplain Reclamation Project, led by Clark County and the nonprofit Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, would contribute $45.5 million to the local economy and sustain more than 305 local jobs. 

The recent restoration project led by the Estuary Partnership at Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Washougal demonstrates the powerful economic and ecological benefits of restoring rivers. More than 70% of the money invested in that project was spent in Clark County to hire local people and buy local goods. 

Today, not only is the refuge a better place for fish and wildlife, but it is almost always bustling with people enjoying the new trail system, and the project also reduced flood risk and maintenance for the port and city.   

Like the restoration at Steigerwald, the East Fork Lewis River floodplain reclamation project offers enormous recreational benefits. It is a vital component of the vision for the East Fork Lewis River Greenway — an interconnected system of natural areas and a multi-use recreational trail along the river from Daybreak Regional Park to Paradise Point State Park, which are supported by the Conservation Futures program. This program preserves land that connects our community, protects our water and air, preserves corridors for wildlife, and provides recreational opportunities.  

This project has already secured over $7 million from a competitive, statewide public fund and is on track to break ground in 2024. The project will only become a reality with a final investment from the Washington State Legislature. Their full support for the Department of Ecology’s Floodplains by Design program is necessary for the future of the East Fork Lewis River.

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Sue Marshall represents District 5 on the Clark County Council, which encompasses the communities of Battle Ground, La Center, Ridgefield and Yacolt.