Clean Water News & Stories

Wapato Lake: A Wetland Restored, and Now a Refuge

Years of Working in Partnership Pays Off at One of the Nation’s Newest Wildlife Refuges

In its natural state, the Wapato lakebed filled and receded with the rise and fall of the Tualatin River. Wapato Lake — located in what is now the City of Gaston in Washington County — takes its name from an important edible plant for the area’s Indigenous Atfalati-Kalapuya peoples. 

In the 1930s, a pump system and earthen levees designed to facilitate farming were installed in this site of critical importance to the health of water, wildlife, and people. Eighty years later, the economic and public health risks of this aging infrastructure had become evident. 

The Tualatin River viewed from the walking bridge at Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge

In the summer of 2008, a break in the aging levees led to the release of stagnant, algae-laden water into the Tualatin River, which is the drinking water source for more than 400,000 residents. 

The releases affected not only drinking water treatment, but also major industrial users such as Intel and agricultural irrigators, as well as recreators, and fish and wildlife. Just two years later, the primary pumping facility for Wapato Lake failed. With emergency funding and borrowed portable diesel pumps, Clean Water Services worked in partnership to avert further algal blooms. 

Challenges at Wapato Lake involved not only aging infrastructure, but also the significant level of collaboration, funding, and expertise that would be needed to transform this expansive and critical site into a haven for wildlife and an asset to the surrounding communities. 

Aerial view of Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the Gaston road alongside it.

Did You Know?

The Wapato Lake restoration is the result of a Tree for All partnership. One of America’s largest and most successful landscape conservation programs, Tree for All takes a community-based, systems approach to building watershed resilience. Since 2005, Tree for All partners have restored more than 150 river and tributary miles in Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed. Learn more. 

A decade-long effort transformed the community’s capacity to address these challenges. With input from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Clean Water Services forged a strong alliance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tualatin Valley Irrigation District, Joint Water Commission, and other partners to replace the aging pump infrastructure and work together toward full ecological restoration. 

From that partnership emerged the Wapato Lake National Wildlife Refuge, one of the nation’s newest refuges, which is now open to the public. To celebrate this milestone, the Refuge will host a Community Welcome Ceremony and Open House on Saturday, March 18. Learn more

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Wapato Lake, viewed from above, showing vibrant colors of green and blues