WESTPORT — Across the Westport Slough from Carver Road, father and son Tom and Nate Alfonse and another family member are digging out a 100- to 300-foot section of dike separating 160 acres of wetlands from the channel.
The land historically was an unloading point for logs from the Oregon Coast Range being dumped off of railroad cars into the slough to be rafted down the Columbia River. When Alfonse Excavating of Astoria finishes digging out dikes and several tidal inlets by the end of the month, the property, part of the Julia Butler Hansen Wildlife Refuge, will once again be subject to the tides.
The Westport Slough Habitat Restoration Project is the 18th overseen by the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce, which works with willing landowners downstream of the Bonneville Dam to rebuild estuarine environments beneficial to fish and other wildlife.
Paddling around the work site is Jason Smith, a Seaside native and habitat restoration project manager with CREST overseeing the project at Westport Slough.
Smith said the restoration site is where the Nehalem Valley Railroad, after traveling north through the mountains, unloaded an estimated 3 billion board feet of timber to be rafted down the river to mills. The dike surrounding the land was a way for workers to get from the railroad to the water, he said, but has long since become obsolete.
CREST put out bids on the $400,000 project, hiring Henderson Environmental Design-Build Professionals, an environmental construction group out of Lake Oswego, as general contractor. Henderson in turn hired Astoria’s Alfonse Excavating to breach the dike in six spots around the land, and Brownsmead’s Empo Bay Marine to float Alfonse’s equipment across the slough on barges and onto the dikes to avoid damaging the surrounding environment.
Nate Alfonse said the company has trucked materials for several restoration projects and likes the work, as long as it is not hindering other developments such as housing. “For the area we’re working in, I think it’s a great thing, when there’s nothing being done with it,” he said.
Alfonse will remove 1,500 of the more than 6,200 feet of dike surrounding the land by the end of the month, when work starts on the similar-sized Kerry Island directly to the west. The land is owned by the Columbia Land Trust and also managed as wildlife habitat.
“Eighty percent of the estuary has been lost since the late 1880s,” said Denise Löfman, the director of CREST.
Since 1974, CREST has provided research on the estuary and environmental planning. But the large majority of the group’s budget now comes from environmental restoration projects largely funded by the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which is required to restore habitat to offset the impact of hydroelectric dams it operates along the Columbia River.
Löfman said people used to see the river as a freeway through which fish left to sea, but that by the 2000s, research had shined a spotlight on the importance of the estuary in helping outgoing salmon bulk up and acclimate to a brackish environment.
“The science is what’s moved BPA money into the estuary,” she said. “It’s no longer seen as a freeway.”
Löfman said her group tries to find willing landowners who want to improve fish habitat, while getting funding from and helping Bonneville meet its environmental obligations. Since 2010, CREST has helped restore more than 1,000 acres of wetlands in the Columbia estuary.
The group has worked with Bonneville as the primary funding source on 18 projects since 2010, Löfman said, putting more than $8 million in construction projects on the ground, along with $1.5 million in design and engineering work, and $3.5 million in salaries for CREST staff permitting, managing and monitoring projects. Löfman noted a report by researchers at the University of Oregon that every $1 million spent on ecological restoration can create 14 to 16 jobs.
Bruce Henderson, owner of the general contractor hired by CREST for the Westport Slough project, said there are nine to 10 people he has employed in the $400,000 project.
“CREST is a superb client,” he said. “As an organization they put more dollars to work on the ground than a lot of the other organizations we work with.”
Most of CREST’s projects are with government agencies. But Löfman said her group also tries to help private landowners concerned about creating wildlife habitat, such as the late Charnelle Fee. In 1997, Fee bought the property along the Klaskanine River where she founded the Wildlife Center of the North Coast.
In 2013, CREST oversaw the Fee-Simon Wetland Enhancement, which breached dikes to reclaim 50 acres of wetland to the southwest of the wildlife center. The project resulted in a new wetland area, and a new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-certified dike to protect property to the west.
CREST recently hired an engineer to study the feasibility of removing dikes along the Skipanon River to reclaim some former wetlands owned by the Port of Astoria, which has been thinking of moving its boatyard to Warrenton. Löfman said the project has the potential to create 90 acres of wetlands, gaining both Bonneville and the Port valuable wetland mitigation credits needed to offset future construction projects like the boatyard, and providing new Corps-certified levees to protect surrounding property.
Löfman said engineers are looking at soil conditions, how the existing levees are constructed and what would be needed to protect adjacent property owners from the potential new wetlands. That research will help CREST and Bonneville decide whether the project has enough benefit to warrant the cost of construction.
Jim Knight, the Port’s executive director, said it is difficult to gauge the potential of the project until the feasibility study is done — possible around the early part of next year — but that CREST should be applauded for doing a feasibility study on their dime that could help the Port and the community.