New Flood Sign

Members of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority work group look on as Lewis County Public Works employees unveil a new sign next to the Airport that explains where people's tax dollars are going to help flood prevention in January in Chehalis.

The Chehalis Basin Work Group has toiled for 16 months to find and propose a solution to address persistent flooding and restoration of fish habitat, and now they have an ally in Washington state’s top elected official.

The group announced Monday that Gov. Jay Inslee has endorsed a recommendation submitted to him by the group last Friday to take specific courses of action in an integrated project they say will save more than $650 million in flood damage costs and $70 million in fish habitat restoration.

“This is a historic step forward,” Chehalis attorney J. Vander Stoep, a member of the Chehalis Basin Work Group, told The Chronicle Monday. “You have the Chehalis Tribe, an environmentally sensitive governor and a large number of members of the public say ‘Let’s move forward.’”

The Chehalis Basin Work Group worked for 16 months since Inslee first tasked them with submitting a proposal to reduce major flood damage in the basin. The proposal is perhaps the closest any group has ever come to a basin-wide solution to a flooding problem that has historically affected thousands of people, destroyed millions of dollars worth of property, and obliterated untold numbers of fish and wildlife.

A Concrete Flood Retention Dam

The work group recommended five courses of action to achieve their goal, including beginning the permitting process for a concrete flood retention dam on the upper Chehalis River, continuing to improve the Chehalis-Centralia Airport Levee, restoring aquatic species including more than 100 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, investing in localized flood damage reduction projects, and supporting actions by municipalities in the Chehalis River Basin to protect their floodplains and develop with caution.

The subject of a flood retention facility in the basin, particularly near the town of Pe Ell, has generated split opinions among residents in west Lewis County and beyond. Pe Ell Mayor Lonnie Willey asked the work group to address citizens of Pe Ell in October regarding options for the dam, with several people speaking in support of the idea and others against it.

The Quinault Indian Nation has formally addressed the work group indicating their opposition to the water retention project, and the group has stated it will take their concerns seriously and perform a formal evaluation in what is called a programmatic environmental impact statement.

Two types of designs for a water retention facility are under consideration, with an estimated $300 million flood retention-only dam measuring 227 feet tall and holding water only at times of flooding; alternatively, officials are looking at a dam with a multi-purpose reservoir that would measure about 287 feet tall and store water during the winter months, with a controlled release in the spring and summer months. However, permitting for the dam could take three to five years, with construction adding another two years.

The work group also factored in transportation concerns, and Vander Stoep said a water retention facility could greatly reduce the amount of time that an important transportation corridor sits underwater in the event of a major flood.

“If you build a dam, you’re looking at only 20 hours of closure on Interstate 5 as opposed to five days,” Vander Stoep explained. “I-5 has been a central focus of our work.”

Those in the work group feel the benefits being proposed as an overall part of the recommendation largely outweigh the costs, saying the project is designed to take careful considerations to protect fish and wildlife as well as human life and property. The work group hopes its recommendation can stem the tide of the declining salmon fishery by a proactive investment in restoring fish habitat.

Vander Stoep said state law prohibits governments from exercising use of eminent domain to advance fish habitat projects. Rather, landowners would have to agree to sell their property should they be asked to do so in the interest of improving habitat.

“The only thing that can be done is between a mutual buyer and seller,” Vander Stoep explained.

Those in the work group feel the benefits being proposed as an overall part of the recommendation largely outweigh the costs, saying the project is designed to take careful considerations to protect fish and wildlife as well as human life and property. The work group hopes its recommendation can stem the tide of the declining salmon fishery by a proactive investment in restoring fish habitat.

“Our goal isn’t to stop flooding completely, but it’s to reduce the impacts of flooding. Our desire is to do that in a way that is both good for people and for fish,” Vickie Raines, a member of the work group who also serves as chair of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, said. “The recommendation is one we have broad support for and have shown an ability to work together.”

Raines said that cohesiveness among members of the Work Group and the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority has been profound, and especially notable for the Flood Authority as it had in years past been marked by internal struggles — most notably when the Chehalis Tribe pulled out of the group temporarily.

But with the tribe back and the group realizing the urgency in finding a solution, Raines said progress is being made without regard to political party affiliation or ideology.

“We had to look at what the ultimate goal is here. The progress that we’ve made in coming together in a unified effort is great,” Raines said. “If you told me this is where we would be three years ago, I probably would have chuckled.”

 

Where’s the Money?

With a recommendation made and Inslee providing vocal support, the next step is to include it in the proposed 2015-17 biennial budget. Legislators will need to approve that budget, and the work group hopes their effort receives a boost from both chambers in Olympia — especially with a proposed bill informally known as the Washington Water Bill that aims to provide $4 billion toward flooding solutions in the Chehalis Basin, stormwater runoff relief in the Puget Sound region and help for those needing irrigation solutions in the eastern part of the state.

Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund, who also serves on the Flood Authority, said she is excited to see where the projects go in the future, especially with multiple legislators pushing for a solution as well.

“It’s big to be able to come to the governor with an issue, and for him to see the need and to know the due diligence has been done and will be done in the future,” Fund said. “We’re seeing bipartisan support for this on every level, and these days that’s pretty amazing.”

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