The five worst floods in the recorded history of the Chehalis Basin have happened in the past 30 years. This month, area residents will have an opportunity to weigh in on an evaluation of several proposed strategies to protect properties and the area’s ecosystem from future devastation by floodwaters.
“The floods are getting worse. Doing nothing is not really a sustainable option,” said Chrissy Bailey, project manager for the state Department of Ecology’s programmatic environmental impact statement designed to evaluate a wide range of strategies to combat flooding in the basin.
Bailey briefed the Chehalis City Council Monday and the Centralia City Council Tuesday on the progress of the Chehalis Basin Strategy, which she called an “unprecedented” effort.
The Chehalis Basin Strategy is a partnership between local and state agencies to reduce flooding and repair habitat, but Ecology is completing the EIS, Bailey said. The Chehalis Basin includes portions of eight counties, but is mostly situated in Lewis, Grays Harbor and Thurston Counties, Bailey said. It is the second-largest river basin in the state.
Ecology’s draft EIS is scheduled to be finished and released to the public on Sept. 29. Residents will have the month of October to formally comment on its findings. Public meetings are tentatively scheduled in the basin next month to get comment from residents firsthand, Bailey said.
The EIS evaluates four alternative combinations of three different kinds of projects — large-scale flood damage reduction, local flood damage reductions and aquatic species restoration actions — which are designed to address both extreme flooding and the declining health of the river and its species, Bailey said.
One of the largest potential components is a dam on the upper reaches of the Chehalis River near Pe Ell, but most of the possibilities are on a smaller scale.
“There’s no intent to do one without the other,” Bailey said. “If you do something with one of them, you’re really going to have an effect on the other.”
J. Vander Stoep, a member of the Chehalis Basin Work Group, which was formed in 2012 to recommend flood-control actions in the area, urged the Chehalis City Council Monday to take a close look at the options presented in the Ecology EIS, but to realize that not all of them might be good options.
“The idea that you’re seeing all these on the table in my opinion is good. It doesn’t mean you want all these ideas,” he said. “Let’s keep it in context — this is not a proposal, this is a studying of options.”
After all public comments are received, they will be consolidated. The Work Group will meet and make a recommendation to the state Legislature, which will make final funding decisions in 2017. The final EIS is also scheduled to be completed next year.
All four proposed alternatives in the EIS include habitat restoration and work to address local flooding damage.
Alternative 1, favored by the Governor’s Work Group, would include the installation of a dam 1 mile south of Pe Ell. The dam could either be purely for flood retention, with no reservoir, or could have a reservoir to augment water flow. A possible dam comes with positives and negatives, Bailey said. It could slowly release water during hot months, cooling the river, but could also have a negative impact on fish.
It would also include a raised Chehalis Airport levee and projects to reduce coastal flooding in Aberdeen and Hoquiam.
Alternative 2 favors structural flood protection in the form of the airport levee, the projects in Aberdeen and Hoquiam and levees and walls along Interstate 5, rather than a dam.
Alternative 3 favors nonstructural flood protection, which would focus on only local-scale flood control, such as flood proofing and habitat restoration for aquatic species.
Alternative 4 favors restorative flood protection or restoring the river and watershed to a natural condition, resulting in a need to move floodplain farms and homes to higher ground to allow for natural flooding to slow the river by storing floodwaters in the floodplain. This could decrease flooding downstream and reduce the 100-year floodplain, Bailey said.
“It’s important to understand that this action to be effective does have to be at a large scale,” she said, noting that such projects are only conceptual at this point.
Chehalis councilors expressed concern about the restorative option. Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes said displacing residents in favor of the restoration project is a sensitive topic.
“Yet the outcome does not provide that significant of a result,” he said.
Chehalis Councilor and Mayor Pro-Tem Terry Harris also expressed concerns about reshaping the floodplain, equating it to “trying to change the culture of an entire basin.”
During both Monday and Tuesday’s meetings, Vander Stoep said the restoration project would only use land from willing landowners. He said the project would be completely voluntary, but would likely benefit landowners as well as fish.
“Seventy miles worth of property owners on both sides of the river have already communicated with local conservation district members saying, ‘I’m interested in this,’” he said.
Possible projects for local flooding, included in all of the alternatives, are installing farm pads, or raised areas on farmland in the floodplain where animals and equipment would be safe from floodwater; flood-proofing of structures, such as raising structures, building levees and walls, or buying frequently flooded properties from willing owners; changing land use practices to better manage floodplains; and creating an early flood-warning system.
Aquatic restoration projects could include addressing riverbank erosion, removing fish passage barriers and replanting along streams.
“There are thousands of acres of stream sites that would be replanted under these scenarios,” she said.
In addition to several species of steelhead and salmon, the river system is home to a large variety of amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders, and native plants, she said.
“It’s actually the most diverse basin in the state of Washington for amphibians,” she said.
While the river has seen poor returns of salmon species in the past 30 years, with up to an 80 percent loss in some species, the basin does not have a federally endangered salmon species, Bailey said, meaning the basin is not eligible for certain federal funding.
“That’s not been an asset in this basin,” she said. “A lot of the money and the funding and the focus of restoring habitat for declining species hasn’t happened in this basin.”
None of the alternatives will stop flooding altogether in the Chehalis Basin, Bailey said. Instead, the Chehalis Basin Strategy is intended to reduce flood damage and restore damaged habitat for aquatic species.
Some work is already underway in the Chehalis Basin. Projects totaling $12.5 million, including culvert removal and local flood projects, are in the state budget for this biennium.