Bear River Estuary Project


The Bear River Estuary Restoration is within the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge (WNWR) in Pacific County, Washington at Township 10 North, Range 11 West, Sections 1, 6, 7, 11, and 12 and Township 10N, Range 10W, Section 6 (46o 22.812 N, 23o 59.160 W). The project area is within the Lewis, Porter Point, and Riekkola Units of the Refuge at the southern end of Willapa Bay, just west of the mouth of Bear River.


I. Background: When non-Indian settlers first arrived in the region, Willapa Bay comprised 14,620 acres of saltwater wetlands. Now there are 5,277 acres. This represents a 64% loss of estuarine wetlands (Coastal Resources Alliance 2007). Estuarine wetland loss has been particularly extensive in the Bear River estuary, primarily due to diking and draining of shallow water nearshore areas. The salmon recovery strategies of each of the Lead Entity groups in the Coast Region make it clear that problems for salmon caused by shoreline modification, such as diking and armoring, are top priorities to address (WCSSP 2012). The removal of existing dikes and re-establishment of estuarine rearing habitat for juvenile salmonids was identified as a high priority in the Pacific County (WRIA 24) Strategic Salmon Recovery Plan (Applied Environmental Services 2001). The protection and restoration of estuarine and nearshore habitats were also cited as major ecoregional recovery goals in the Pacific Northwest Coast Ecoregional Assessment (TNC and WDFW 2006), the Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan (Drut and Buchanan 2000), and Pacific Marine and Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership Strategic Framework 2012–2017 (PMEP 2012).


The Bear River Estuary Restoration project would restore 500 acres of high quality estuarine habitat in southern Willapa Bay. As detailed in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement (CCP/EIS)(USFWS 2011), the restoration of the Bear River estuary would benefit a wide array of estuarine-dependent species. It would also support local watershed restoration, salmon recovery, and waterfowl management efforts. For example, the Willapa Bay Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group (WBRFEG) has recently restored salmonid spawning and rearing habitat in four streams that drain to the Bear River estuary. Progeny from anadromous salmon and trout that spawn in these streams would be expected to directly benefit from the restoration of the Bear River estuary.


During the 1950s, a large portion of the salt marsh habitat present in Bear River estuary was eliminated by the construction of several miles of dike that ran parallel to the western shoreline of Willapa Bay. The dike disrupts physical, chemical and biological processes associated with tidally influenced areas; acts as a barrier to the movement of sediment, organic material, and aquatic organisms; and reduces the survival and productivity of several species, including chum, coho, and Chinook salmon, and cutthroat trout, that formerly spawned and/or reared in the diked-off areas.


Construction of the Bear River dike has made it difficult for fish to access 3 small streams in the Bear River estuary: Lewis, Porter Point, and Dohman Creeks. Resident non-anadromous populations of cutthroat trout were captured in Lewis and Porter Creeks in 1999 (Barndt, et al. 2000); the same survey reported that the two streams contain 2.5 miles of potential spawning and rearing habitat. Fish ladders were installed in the dikes in 2001 to enable fish to access Lewis and Porter Point during times of the year when tides were high. As a result, a small run of coho was re-established in Lewis Creek (USFWS 2011). Although Dohman Creek has limited spawning habitat, the removal of the dike would restore 0.5 miles of tidally influenced juvenile rearing habitat in its lower reach.


II. Goals and objectives: The goal of the project is to restore a large area of the Bear River estuary that has been degraded by past human activities to a healthy, naturally functioning condition. The Bear River Estuary Restoration project would remove 5.16 miles of existing dike, 38 culverts, 2 fish ladders, 2 tide gates, and 2 foot bridges. As a result, nearly 204 hectares (500 acres) of estuarine habitat would be restored, including 91.5 hectares in18 tidal channels that would convey water from upland and tidally-influenced areas directly to Willapa Bay. Re-establishment of natural estuarine processes and habitats will benefit a diverse array of aquatic and avian species, including marine invertebrates, salmon and trout, shorebirds, and waterfowl, with corresponding ecological and economic benefits.


The primary focus is juvenile salmonids for rearing; and for sturgeon and eulachon (candlefish), which are listed as threatened for habitat in this watershed. The entire area was blocked by dikes in 1950s, which destroyed the function of the estuary. Strategic planning for restoration stated in 1999, and 11 Strategic plans and studies were completed in the watershed to define the plans for restoring the estuary. The streams flowing into the estuary were restored for spawning and in-stream rearing first. The last stream completed in 2010. The missing element in the juvenile life cycle is estuary rearing for salmonids making their transitions to saltwater. This project provides that necessary element.


The five phases in the Bear River Estuary Restoration project include:

Phase 1 - Dike and fish ladder removal at Lewis Unit to restore 160 acres of estuary. This phase was completed in September 2012.

Phase 2 - Dike and fish ladder removal at Porter Point to restore 145 acres of estuary. This phase will be completed in 2013.

Phase 3, 4, and 5 restore up to 200 acres of estuary in the Riekkola Unit.

  • Phase 3-Develop a design to raise the inner dike (RL4) to 14 ft. (2013-2014)
  • Phase 4-Reconstruct RL4 in same footprint to 14 ft. (2014-2015)
  • Phase 5–Removal of the outer dike and tide gate at the Riekkola Unit. Removal of roads, ditches, culverts, and restore tidal channels in Riekkola unit. (2015-2016)

Project Timeline


Survey work began. The entire area was flown with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to obtain a detailed map. Then a ground survey cross-section of the dikes and roads was made as an aid to designing the removal of the dikes/roads. These two databases were then combined which produced the overview map of the area. The cross sectional surveys resulted in a database that defined the soil mass to be removed and fill required.



With funding from Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board, WBRFEG, and in-kind design development was started using a design team method. Twenty design team members from WNWR, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Ecology, Pacific County, University of Washington, and AMEC Earth and Environmental (AMEC) were the lead design group, and WBRFEG the project sponsor/leader. The design was developed by first developing a Basis of Design document, which all team members agreed upon. This was followed by a series of design reviews, which all design team members attended and agreed upon. In parallel with this activity, a Monitoring Protocol was developed by AMEC. The design was completed in August 2010, and a Biological Evaluation (BE), which included the ESA, historical and archeological determinations, was started. Baseline monitoring was completed in September. The BE report was completed, and an application to the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) was completed in December 2010.


US Fish and Wildlife Service’s released their Draft CCP/EIS which included the design and BE. As a result of the review process, changes were made to the Riekkola Unit design and the amount of tidal restoration was reduced from 750 to 500 acres in the Final CCP/EIS (USFWS 2011). The inter-dike will remain, and the inter-dike will be enlarged to provide more short-grass acreage for waterfowl. Changes to the drawings were made and the applications for the ACOE Nationwide Permit 27 (NWP 27).


Received the NWP 27, which covers the entire project (Lewis, Porter Point, and Riekkola).


Pre-project baseline monitoring


As a part of the design development a post construction monitoring protocol was developed, and after design was completed, baseline monitoring of the entire project area (Lewis, Porter Point, and Riekkola) was accomplished August to October 2010 to define the baseline conditions. Fish monitoring was included.


Starting in May, WNWR restored 64.7 hectares (160 acres) of Lewis Unit, removed 1.62 miles of dikes/roads, a fish ladder, a foot bridge, and reconnected Lewis stream and 5 other tidal channels to their historic channels. A number of tidal plugs were installed to aid in restoring historic tidal channels. The majority of the construction work was completed by Refuge staff to reduce costs and increase efficiency. The Lewis Unit was completed September 30, 2012. Implementation monitoring and Post- Project fish monitoring was accomplished.



Starting in May, WNWR will restore 58.70 hectares (145 acres) of Porter Point Unit by removing about 1.64 miles of dikes/roads, a fish ladder, and a foot bridge. Reconnect the Porter Point Unit Stream to its historic channel and 6 other tidal channels to their historic channels. A number of plugs will be installed to assist the re-establishment of historic tidal channels. Planned completion date is September 30, 2013. The majority of the construction work will be completed by Refuge staff to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Implementation monitoring, and Post-Project fish monitoring is planned.



Phase 3 of the Riekkola Unit will begin. Develop a design to rise the inter dike (LR4) to 14 feet. This will allow the refuge to maintain 100 acres of short grass fields for waterfowl and public hunting. Two new tide-gates will be designed with sufficient capacity to handle the 100-year flood for this watershed.



Phase 4 of the Riekkola Unit will begin. LR4 dike will be raised to 14 feet, and two new tide gates will be installed. It’s important to construct the raised dike within the existing footprint, to be in compliance with the NWP #27. This will avoid any additional fill outside the existing footprint. This entire area is considered wetlands. Twenty-one culverts/water control structures will also be removed.



Phase 5 of the Riekkola Unit will begin. Using the existing design, 80.97 hectares (200 acres) of the Riekkola unit will be restored. There will be 0.75 miles of dikes/roads, two tide gates, and 12 culverts removed. There will be three tidal channels reconnected to their historic conditions. 1,800 ft of the outer dike, will be sloped on the inside to a 10:1 slope to aid in maintenance. This dike will be the surface for a planned trail from the site of the future refuge visitor center to an estuary overview. Parker Slough, Dohman Creek and another channel will be reconnected to its historic channel, near the current tide gates location.


Monitoring is an important component of this restoration. Baseline monitoring of water quality, vegetation, channel geomorphology, fish, invertebrates and development photo monitoring has been completed. Post construction monitoring has begun. Photo points, bird counts, fish surveys, invertebrate sampling, vegetation transects, water quality sampling, and movement of sediment will all be monitored as the restoration continues to evolve. The first chum salmon in the Lewis Unit was observed in one of the restored channels on October 26, 2012 – less than one month after the restoration was completed.


A time series of photographs would be taken at established photo points to consistently document landscape changes occurring over time. Photographs and the annotated information would provide a qualitative history of the project. Ortho-rectified aerial photos would be used in GIS to quantitatively analyze changes in the intertidal mudflat and blind channel habitat areas, and track the formation and morphology of channels as they develop over time.


Changes in hydrology will lead to different rates of sediment deposition or scour, which will effect elevations across the restored site. Pairs of PVC stakes will be driven into the ground at specified locations in the restored marsh. The stakes will be georeferenced with GPS and the tops of the pins will be surveyed to a standard vertical datum. The distance from the top of the pins to the soil will be measured annually to detect changes in elevation resulting from the transport of sediment.


Cross-sections will be established along each of the three largest remnant channels to document changes in channel morphology. Elevations will be measured across the channel at 0.5-meter increments and standardized. Channel morphology would also be measured at select locations in a reference site and/or at other restoration sites (Tarlatt). Data would be plotted to illustrate cross-sections and how they change over time as a result of tidal inundation.


As an indicator of ecosystem health, and to infer whether sufficient food resources are available for many of the birds and fish that are expected to utilize the site, invertebrate diversity and abundance would be monitored. Sampling with sweep nets would occur in the upper elevations of the emergent marsh where vegetation is present. Benthic cores would be collected in slough, mud flat, and marsh edge habitat. Additional parameters such as soil salinity and grain size would also be recorded. Samples are to be sieved and preserved for future identification in a laboratory. Sampling at each location would occur annually and coincide with fish surveys. Laboratory results would include identified taxa and relative mass within each sample. These results will be related to the other physical parameters measured.


One of three fish sampling methods would be selected based on local conditions: beach seine, fyke net, or a series of minnow traps. Broad channels and deep standing water will be sampled with beach seines; narrower blind tidal channels will be sampled with fyke nets; and shallow ponds and streams will be sampled with minnow traps. The species, abundance, size, and distribution within habitat types would be measured. The level of effort for each sampling event would also be recorded to compare values between sites and between methods. Juvenile salmonids (chum and Chinook) are expected to use estuarine habitat during outmigration in the spring. Fish monitoring would be scheduled according to juvenile salmon migration and estuarine residency. Species composition and the change in species density would be recorded before and after restoration at the restored site and compared with reference site conditions.


There will be three types of monitoring that cover the five phases:

  • Implementation Monitoring
  • Post Project Fish Monitoring
  • Post Project Follow up.

Implementation monitoring includes a basic element: measuring transportation of silt when opening of the channels to Bear River Bay, when the fish ladders and/or tide gates are removed, and new channels are reconnected. It is a water quality requirement and a condition of our permit.


Post-project fish monitoring and post-project follow-up: WNWR will be monitoring post project for six years, four of the years within scope of this funding. The Fish monitoring will be after each unit has been completed to document the fish returning over the months indicated. In general the Salmonids in this area are primarily coho and chum, which return in late October-mid November. There are some Chinook, which return in August, but they will be in the main stream of the Bear River. There will be follow-up monitoring on all units through 2017. Lewis and Porter Point units, each have a stream above the removed dikes. Evaluations of these streams were accomplished in 2009, and a resident cutthroat trout population was found. These streams do have some spawning habitat, which will be improved with the free flow waters after dikes are removed and tidal channels are functional again. Together there is about two miles of potential spawning habitat.

Resource to be Benefitted

This restoration project will contribute to meeting the objectives of Goal 2 in the Willapa NWR Comprehensive Conservation Plan (USFWS 2011). That goal aims to “Protect, maintain, and restore estuarine habitats historically characteristic of the southwest Washington coastal region for the benefit of salmonids, Pacific brant, other waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds, and a diverse assemblage of other native species.”  It would also support local watershed restoration, salmon recovery, and waterfowl management efforts. For example, the Willapa Bay Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group has recently restored salmonid spawning and rearing habitat in four streams that drain to the Bear River estuary. Progeny from anadromous salmon and trout that spawn in these streams would be expected to directly benefit from the restoration of the Bear River estuary.


Fish Species Present:  Threatened bull trout, threatened green sturgeon, and threatened eulachon. In addition, coho, chum, steelhead, and cutthroat trout are present. Historically chum salmon were the most dominate in Willapa Bay, 65% of the total run. This is reflective of our habitat in Willapa Bay’s 745 salmon bearing streams, with 1470 miles of salmon habitat. Many of the streams in Willapa Bay are low-gradient steams that empty directly into the estuary. Poor land management and fish management practices over the years have almost eliminated the chum salmon in Willapa Bay. The large chum population was targeted for harvest by fish traps, and sets, from turn of 19th century until 1935. Staring in the 1950’s commercial gillnetting, with the use of the monofilament nets harvest salmon/sturgeon, until 1998, when Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, closed the Bear River for commercial harvest, because salmon population were very low. In 2009, the run size is less than 1% of the total salmonids. In Willapa Bay historically the natural spawning populations of anadromous fish have been: 65% chum; 25% coho, and 10% Chinook. Other anadromous cutthroat trout, steelhead, but there is no reliable data on their populations; all have been experiencing sharp declining populations.


Restoration and enhancement of estuarine habitats will increase the acreage of salt marsh and other habitats, including the tidal creeks, eelgrass beds and channels that furnish young salmon (coho, chum, Chinook and cutthroat trout), with protected feeding areas where they forage and grow before heading out to sea. Lewis and Porter Point streams also provide spawning habitat for cutthroat trout and coho.


Migratory waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds are also expected to benefit from the increase in tidal marsh and mudflat habitat. Estuarine areas on the Refuge have annually provided important habitat for over 20,000 migrating ducks, tens of thousands of shorebirds, and 3,000 migrating geese at a time. This type of habitat is essential to sustaining the estimated 2.2 million duck, 400,000 Canada goose, 200,000 brant, and over 2 million shorebird use-days associated with the southern half of Willapa Bay (USFWS 1997).


Since December 2011, the Refuge and Friends of Willapa NWR have increased their efforts to consult with and educate other organizations, agencies, and individuals about this project. The Refuge and Friends have met with over 40 entities, participated in local events, established a project-dedicated webpage (, and disseminated updates and photos about the restoration project via social media. There has also been significant media (newspaper) coverage of the restoration and close coordination with Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler’s office. These efforts will continue throughout the restoration project.



  • Ron Craig, Craig Enterprises, will continue to play a large role in each phase of design and implementation of this project.
  • John Evans, NDC Timber, assisted with design development and was contracted to remove the fish ladder and tidegate within the Lewis Unit in 2012. The Refuge will be contracting with John and NDC Timber to remove the fish ladder and tidgegate within the Porter Port Unit in 2013.
  • Western Washington Fisheries Resource Office and Columbia River Fisheries Office will develop a long-term fish monitoring plan and assist with implementation beginning in 2013.
  • Friends of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge will continue to assist the Refuge with education and outreach for the restoration.
  • Willapa Fisheries Enhancement Group and the Salmon Recovery Funding Board funded the engineering designs for Phases 1, 2 and 5.
  • AMEC Earth and Infrastructure, Inc. prepared the engineering design for Phases 1, 2 and 5 as well as developed the biological monitoring plan.
  • Herrera Environmental conducted pre, during, and post construction biological monitoring in the Lewis Unit (Phase 1).
  • Ducks Unlimited.
  • Sustainable Fisheries Foundation.
  • Washington Coast Sustainable Salmon Partnership.
  • The Pacific Marine and Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership provided funding for this project in 2013.



Applied Environmental Services, Inc. 2001. Pacific County (WRIA 24) Strategic Plan For Salmon Recovery. Prepared for: Pacific County South Bend, WA. Port Orchard, WA.

Barndt, S.A., T.C. Coley, J.C. Taylor, and B.A. Ensign. 2000. Physical and Biological Characteristics and Salmonid Restoration Potential of Seven Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Waterbodies. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Columbia River Fisheries Office, Vancouver, WA.


Drut, M.S. and J.B. Buchanan. 2000. U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan. Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management, Portland, OR.


Pacific Marine and Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership (PMEP). 2012. Pacific Marine and Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership Strategic Framework 2012–2017. Salem, OR.


The Nature Conservancy and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2006. Pacific Northwest Coast Ecoregional Assessment. The Nature Conservancy, Portland OR.(accessed July 12, 2010).


USFWS. 1997. Control of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) on Willapa National Wildlife Refuge—Environmental Assessment.


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2011. Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, Ilwaco, WA.


Washington Coast Sustainable Salmon Partnership (WCSSP). 2012. Draft Washington Coast Sustainable Salmon Plan - Protect the Best, Restore the Rest. Ocean Shores, WA.




Phase 2 Outcomes - Phase 2 of the Bear River Estuary Restoration restored 140 acres of estuary on the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge's Porter Point Unit.  The removal of the dikes, fish ladder and associated structures restored natural tidal processes in the project area.  The intensively managed pastures and freshwater impoundments were restored to historic estuarine conditions for the benefit of salmonids and a variety of migratory birds and will contribute to the health of the bay and associated habitats.


Six of the seven historic channels were restored, one fish ladder/water control structure, one cross dike, and approximately 70% (6,000 of the 8,700 feet) of exterior dike was removed to restore 140 acres of salt marsh, intertidal flats, and open water. 


The remaining 2,700 feet of exterior dike will be removed and the final stream connection will be completed in 2014.
Check out the photos of 2013 work here.

Spring 2013 PMEP Steering Committee Field Trip


PMEP Steering Committee members, numerous partner organization representatives, and County Commissioners convene in the Willapa Bay area to discuss ongoing restoration projects.
PMEP Steering Committee members, partner organization representatives, and County Commissioners overlook the Bear River.
The entrance sign to Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.
Field trip enthusiasts review maps of the project.
Jackie Ferrier of the US Fish and Wildlife Service describes habitat restoration projects on Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.