Conservation Issues

Why are Wetlands Important?
Protection of the Wildlife Area
St. Johns Landfill
Water Control Structure
Non-native Plants and Animals
Water Quality

Why are Wetlands Important?

Wetlands such as Smith and Bybee Lakes are important because they provide:

Flood control: wetlands act as natural storage areas for storm water.
Natural water filters for excess nutrients and some chemical contaminants, thus improving water quality
Habitat for wildlife.
Fish habitat and fisheries, including resting places for juvenile salmon.
Open spaces with educational, recreational and aesthetic values.
Groundwater recharge, the movement of surface water into groundwater.

Protection of the Wildlife Area

Historically, Smith and Bybee lakes were part of a vast floodplain near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Old aerial photographs of Smith and Bybee lakes from the 1930s show extensive wetlands with a maze of channels and sloughs, ponds, lakes, marshes and forests. Years of dredging, diking, filling, land clearing and development in the area, along with dam building on the Columbia and Willamette rivers, have changed the landscape. The wetlands are now surrounded by the warehouses, factories, railroad yards and port terminals of the Rivergate Industrial District, along with the St. John’s landfill.

Fortunately, the remaining wetlands are protected by a management plan. The Natural Resources Management Plan for Smith and Bybee Lakes (NRMP) was adopted in 1990 as an ordinance by the City of Portland and Metro Regional Government. The NRMP designates Metro as the manager of the lakes. The goals of the NRMP state that the lakes “will be maintained and enhanced, to the extent possible, in a manner that is faithful to their original natural condition.” In accordance with the NRMP, the Smith and Bybee Lakes Management Committee was formed to provide recommendations and general oversight of the management area. The Friends of Smith & Bybee Lakes has a representative on this committee.

St. Johns Landfill

The St. Johns Landfill, comprising about 250 acres, contains 50 years of Portland’s garbage. The landfill was closed in 1991. The landfill site lies within the Smith and Bybee Lakes Wildlife Area. The site is managed by Metro’s Regional Environmental Management Department (REM). The landfill has been capped and non-native grasses are now grown over the site. Methane gas is being captured and sold to local industry. The possibility of contaminated leachate seeping into surface and groundwater is a major concern. Metro REM maintains groundwater monitoring wells in the wildlife area.

Water Control Structure

Historically, the lakes were a tidal freshwater marsh. Much of the area was naturally flooded during the winter and spring. In late summer and fall, the lakes become very shallow, exposing areas of mudflats. The seasonal fluctuation of the water changed in 1982 when a water control structure was built to maintain a higher water level in the lakes. This structure, an earthen dam, was built to help alleviate an outbreak of avian botulism. While the avian botulism is gone, the higher water levels have altered the habitat, killing many acres of willow trees and causing other changes in the vegetative habitat of the lakes. These changes have reduced the natural diversity of the ecosystem.

The Smith and Bybee Lakes Management Committee has recommended that the structure be replaced with one that allows water to flow freely between the North Slough, a fork of the Columbia Slough, and the lakes. The seasonal and tidal fluctuations would return and the lakes would be flushed by the changing water levels. The willow forest would be restored, as well as wet meadows.

Non-native Plants and Animals

Several non-native plants have invaded the wildlife area, as well as other wetlands in the lower Columbia estuary. These plants often crowd out the native plants, degrading the habitat. Most invasive plants provide little or no food value for wildlife. The main exotic plant species at Smith and Bybee Lakes are reed canary grass, purple loosestrife and Himalayan blackberry. Removal of non-native plants and replanting of natives is ongoing at the lakes. To control purple loosestrife in the wetlands along the Columbia River, government agencies are releasing specific beetle species that feed on the plants.

Nutria look similar to beavers, but are slightly smaller and have round rat-like tails. Nutria were introduced to Oregon from South America and were raised for their fur. When there was no market for their fur, they were released into the wild where they have multiplied. Nutria borrow into the banks, causing erosion. They also compete for habitat with the native muskrat.

Another problem species at the wildlife area is the bullfrog. Bullfrogs have thrived at many sites around the lakes and elsewhere in Oregon. The bullfrog eats other small animals including native frogs and young turtles.

Carp are bottom feeding fish that were introduced from Europe. Carp stir up the sediments in the lakes, making it very difficult for aquatic plants to survive. The population of carp in the lakes is quite large.

Illegal dumping has been a problem at the lakes over the years. The Friends help with cleanup.

Water Quality

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is required by the federal Clean Water Act to maintain a list of water bodies that do not meet water quality standards. In DEQ’s 1998 303(d) database, both Smith Lake and Bybee Lake are listed as “water quality limited” for the following reasons:

Habitat Modification

pH

Flow Modification

Aquatic Weeds or Algae

Biological Criteria

Restoring seasonal flooding and tidal patterns to the lakes may alleviate some of these problems. DEQ is revising the 303(d) database for the year 2002. For further information see DEQ Water Quality.