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Grant will pump $3 million into river restoration projects

A $3 million federal grant will help restore and improve parts of the Columbia River over the next five years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture invested $20.2 million in Oregon to help fund seven conservation projects. A lower Columbia Watershed Partnership project, led by the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District, aims to improve water quality through stream bank restoration projects.

COLUMBIA SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION DISTRICT PHOTO - Culverts installed in the Clatskanie River improved drainage and fish passage. Similar projects will take place over the next five years in the Lower Columbia Watershed area. The projects will be targeted at reducing sediments that flow into surface waters, according to a press release from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“This project in particular was selected because it’s in a critical conservation area,” Tracy Robillard, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, explained. “It’s 147,000 acres in the Lower Columbia Watershed. The whole project takes place in Columbia County.”

The Columbia River is considered one of eight critical conservation areas across the nation, largely because of its salmon and steelhead habitat, Robillard said. Threats to habitat from population growth have made conservation efforts a greater priority for federal agencies.

The $3 million is a boon to the SWCD, which gets close to 70 percent of its funding from grants, according to the district’s latest annual report.

The Soil and Water Conservation District in St. Helens applied for funds through the national NRCS office.

“This is the first time funding has become available in a form that works in our county,” Kari Hollander, manager of the SWCD, explained Monday. Hollander said SWCD will contract and manage all aspects of each project, involving hundreds of landowners.

“The program has been in existence for two, maybe three years now,” Hollander added. “With this particular program, the money is all going to come to the district and we can do a much broader program scope.”

Representatives from SWCD will reach out to landowners in the project area, which includes more than 900 agricultural producers, Robillard said.

Currently, the watershed faces water quality degradation from inefficient use of irrigation, along with the presence of sediments, nutrients, fertilizers and pesticides. The combination of factors creates inadequate habitat for fish and wildlife, according to NCRS.

Work is expected to begin this year.