Evolution of an Estuary - Columbia Land Trust
We lost most of a world-class ecosystem; now we’re bringing it back

With the midday sun glinting off his hard hat, Natural Area Manager Jeff Malone peered over the lip of a freshly dug gash in an otherwise flat landscape located in the lowlands between Westport and Clatskanie, Oregon. Roughly five feet deep, the trench sat empty, aside from a few inches of groundwater.

A newly constructed channel with woody debris will provide fish-rearing habitat.

A newly constructed channel with woody debris will provide fish-rearing habitat.

“It might not look like much now,” said Malone, “but once we breach the levees, these channels will fill and the fish will come right in.”

A couple months later, the 100-acre Kerry Island site is well situated as crucial habitat for young salmon and steelhead now that its new inland channels are reconnected to the surrounding waters. It is just one of several projects that align with Columbia Land Trust’s overarching strategy to conserve and restore tidal floodplains throughout the lower Columbia River Estuary. Kerry Island wasn’t always an island. Like much of the floodplain along the lower Columbia River Estuary, what began as a natural landscape was reshaped in the turn of the twentieth century to convert a tidal wetland into homesteads and farmland.

Historically, the estuary was dominated by tidal Sitka spruce swamps, a diverse and highly productive ecosystem. Local residents cleared, leveled, and drained much of the remaining swampland by installing a network of levees, culverts, and tide gates. While these changes allowed for settlement along the Columbia River, they also fundamentally altered the river’s flow and its ecological systems. Today, the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership, a local restoration and education organization, estimates that 80 percent of the estuary’s historical tidal wetland habitat has been damaged or lost to human development.

Even in its heavily altered state, the lower Columbia River Estuary remains an ecological marvel of global significance. “We in the region tend to perceive the Columbia as this big river that runs through our backyard,” said Nadia Gardner, Coast and Estuary Conservation Manager for Columbia Land Trust, “but the estuary is a critical component in a river system that spans seven states and a Canadian province.”

Chum salmon, along with other salmonids and listed fish species rely on the Columbia River Estuary.

Chum salmon are one many fish species that depend on the Columbia River Estuary. Photo by Eiko Jones Photography

Every anadromous fish that inhabits the river system—including 13 listed species of salmon and steelhead, green sturgeon, and eulachon—will pass through the estuary in its lifetime. As juveniles, these fish rely on tidal wetlands as a place to find refuge from predators and harsh conditions, to acclimatize to saltwater, and to build up energy reserves for life in the open ocean.

Thousands of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, along with plant and invertebrate species, also count on the Columbia River Estuary for habitat and shelter. In addition, humpback whales and orcas benefit from increased fish runs.

Since 2007, when Columbia Land Trust outlined a strategy for the lower Columbia River Estuary in its conservation plan, several focal watersheds have been established, including Grays Bay, Youngs Bay near Astoria, and stretches of the mainstem Columbia River.

While channel digging is winding down on Kerry Island, landscapes across 1,700 acres of conserved lands in the Grays Bay area in Wahkiakum County, Washington, are entering the next phase of restoration. Stewardship staff and contractors are planting native vegetation, treating weeds, and monitoring progress. Recent assessments at the Kandoll Farm property along Grays River suggest an increase in juvenile salmon just two years after the land was reconnected to the tidal floodplain.

As with all the Land Trust’s focal areas, the success of our conservation and restoration efforts in the estuary depends on the strength of our relationships. For nearly a decade, Gardner has listened to landowners and stakeholders throughout the area. “I work with people who love the land, the region, and the wildlife, and have for generations,” she said. “Occupations, ages, and political affiliations may vary, but we all value this place and its wildlife.”

If the Columbia River is the lifeblood of the region, then the lower Columbia River may well be its heart. By restoring tidal wetlands, swamps, sloughs, and channels, we’re increasing resilience in the ecosystem, and we’re putting landscapes in a position to recover some of our most threatened and iconic wildlife species. The work is muddy, slow, and at times daunting, but when the fish arrive in places dormant for centuries, it offers new hope. The pulse quickens and the river stirs, thriving with life.

For more details on our Kerry Island floodplain reconnection project, including photos of levee breaching, read our October project update.