For 13 years I have been involved in seeking a solution to flooding challenges faced by the Chehalis River Basin. Flooding was the initial stimulus for the effort that has developed, but an Aquatic Species Restoration Plan (ASRP) has also emerged as a key component. Recently a great deal of focus on these efforts has been stimulated by the release of the State Environment Policy Act Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is not clearly understood, as shown by the many emotional reactions, especially during the webinar presentations made by the Department of Ecology.
First of all, it is the job of those working on the EIS to identify every conceivable negative environmental factor that can be attached to a proposed project. It seems that these factors can be either confirmed or imagined — it matters not. That is not the point. The thing that is not understood by the public at large is that the EIS has no obligation or responsibility to provide any mitigation proposals for any of the negative findings in their report. Mitigation simply means solutions toward eliminating negative factors. It is the responsibility of those proposing any project to carry out the mitigation function. That is exactly what is intended with regards to plans for the flood retention facility.
Those of us including One Voice, the Office of the Chehalis Basin and Lewis County Flood Zone Control District, all players in this effort, have no intention of pursuing flood control systems that harm an already stressed fish population, in fact just the opposite is true. There is no project that will be proposed without accompanying proposals to not only prevent fish population decrease but coupled with the ASRP, enhance fish populations. The belief has been propagated in some minds that the flood control efforts are originating from a “fish be damned” mindset. That belief is well supported if you take the EIS at face value. Unless the negatives of that report can be mitigated, a retention facility must be tabled until such mitigation can be developed, if ever.
There are serious questions about some of the factors presented in the EIS. I would like to address just a few.
First, the main concern about putting a retention facility above Pe Ell is the effect it would have on fish migration. On page 19 of the EIS summary it is stated that between 93 percent and 33 percent of the various species that spawn in the Chehalis do so above the proposed site. Yet, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife report from July 2019 shows between 5 and 3 percent of various salmon species spawn above the site and 13 percent of the spawning steelhead go above the site. Both can’t be right. Regardless, the statement in the report says that “significant negative effect” would be felt on fish runs above the facility site. That later is explained to be a reduction according to DOE of about 10 percent past present Crim Creek. Ten percent of 93 percent is concerning, but 10 percent of 5 or 3 percent is a different consideration. The thing we don’t understand at this point is how they can estimate the percentages when the final design plans for the river pass through have not been developed. It is the goal of the design engineers to create a facility that the fish would literally not know exists as they work their way upstream or down.
There is no other facility in existence anywhere like what is being proposed, so the DOE has nothing to compare to or draw from in making their predictions. This retention facility would be wide open to fish passage 99.97 percent of the time, and even when closed, .03 percent of the time would not depend on an obstacle-laden ladder for fish passage, but rather a more efficient trap and transport system. It is estimated the reservoir would be drawn down in three weeks or less when created.
One of the frustrating comments heard at the public presentation was from a Port Angeles resident who compared the retention facility being planned to the Elwha Dam that was breached in recent years. That is like comparing a car to a house. Both are made by man, but that is about it. The Elwha was a standard hydroelectric facility with a permanent reservoir and absolutely no accommodation for fish passage and was built before such concerns were listened to. This flood control facility is a run of the river facility allowing free passage of the river when not briefly activated to partially control floodwaters and full consideration is given to fish passage.
Another interesting statement in the report is regarding recreational river use. It states that 14 miles of the river would no longer be available to kayaking. That one has us puzzled. If kayaking were allowed above the site (which it isn’t due to access limited by Weyerhaeuser Co.) this facility would not affect the flow of the river except when closed due to flooding so kayaking would only be stopped at the facility, portage 100 feet or so and continue on. There would be no downstream effect since the water flow is not restricted. Again, that one leaves us scratching our heads.
Water temperature increase was another potential negative issue noted in the SEPA report. True, if a clearcut occurred above the facility where a temporary reservoir would take place and left the clearcut, the water temperature in the river would indeed rise an unacceptable amount. Again, the word mitigation enters the picture. There are over seven species of trees that will grow in the Northwest that can withstand long periods of inundation that could be planted and continue to provide shade for the river bed. That needs thorough study and planning.
Much emotion is being stirred up by this whole process. You notice I have not used the word “dam” in this presentation. That is purposeful. We are not proposing to dam the Chehalis River. We are proposing a flood control facility that would be briefly activated during catastrophic flood events forming a temporary reservoir that would be drawn down at a rate that would lessen flood damage. The benefits of this facility would be felt from Doty to Cosmopolis. This facility would in no way influence the flow of the Chehalis at any other time than during a catastrophic flood event, and even then the flow of the river would not be halted, just regulated. I would urge all to not dig their heels in one way or the other until all possible mitigation is designed and approved. No one involved wants anything but less flooding and more fish, period. The alternative that has not been addressed is the “do nothing” alternative. Fish models based upon the present rate of climate change show the current species of fish that inhabit the Chehalis today will be totally eliminated by the century’s end if nothing is done. The tribes have a right to oppose the facility based on the EIS. That said, they are both highly professional organizations, and once negatives in the EIS are addressed, I hope their concerns and those of other opponents will be lessened or eliminated.
Besides flooding concerns, we must also help restore, to the extent climate change allows, fish populations.
I was born and raised here so I know what the history of flooding does to this basin, but I also know what it meant to me as a kid growing up here and fishing the Chehalis when fish were more plentiful.
Let’s make it all work.
Dr. John M. Henricksen was a longtime Chehalis dentist and a founding member of the One Voice, a group that emerged in the wake of the December 2007 Chehalis River flood to seek options for mitigating flooding in the basin. Comments on the SEPA EIS can be made at chehalisbasinstrategy.com/eis/comment-form/. They can be mailed to SEPA Draft EIS for the Chehalis Flood Damage Reduction Project, c/o Anchor QEA, LLC, 1201 Third Avenue, Suite 2600, Seattle, WA, 98101. Comments must be submitted by May 27.