Lewis County tends to lean to the right when it comes to elections, but residents have a pair of Democratic governors to thank, at least in part, for unprecedented progress on finding a fix for flooding and aquatic species enhancement in the Chehalis River Basin.
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire viewed the decimation wrought by the December 2007 floods in person after landing at W.F. West High School in a helicopter shortly after the water receded. She paid early attention to work by leaders in the basin who set out to ensure the chances of a similar disaster in the future were diminished.
There were hiccups along the way, stops and starts that came as a natural result of about a dozen local governments in three counties — along with two Native American tribes — learning to understand each other’s diverse concerns and considerations. That process began with the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, and continues today, but there has been notable progress.
In 2011, Gregoire’s office directed the Office of Financial Management to prepare a report on potential flood damage reduction projects. In a move that is widely credited with the advancement of current plans, the office also asked for The William D. Ruckelshaus Center to assist in coordinating with local governments.
Gregoire established the Chehalis Basin Work Group in November 2011, connecting local government leaders and the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority with tribal interests and later establishing the dual goal of enhancing aquatic species habitat while taking the edge off flooding.
Gov. Jay Inslee has continued his predecessor’s support for the Chehalis River Basin. His presence in Lewis County Thursday was a clear indicator our flooding and declining aquatic species populations have his attention.
Many might disagree with the governor’s opinion on climate change, but data presented by the Department of Ecology indicates there will be a sharp increase in flooding and a severe decline in aquatic species in the Chehalis River Basin if action is not taken.
Now that Ecology has finalized an environmental impact statement examining the potential for everything from a dam near Pe Ell to the restoration of massive areas of floodplain, the Office of the Chehalis Basin is set to take the lead.
Created by the Legislature, the office will work within the Department of Ecology as its own entity. It will be directed by a board that includes representation or input from local stakeholders, tribal representatives, environmental interests and state agencies. Though a budget has not been finalized, the House suggested $47 million in funding while the Senate includes $42 million.
The casual observer can be forgiven for seeing the latest developments as more endless bureaucracy, but the truth is those who want to protect aquatic species and those who seek to end chronic flooding are increasingly one in the same.
The Office of the Chehalis Basin reflects that reality, and its work over the next two years must illustrate a true desire to focus on both issues in meaningful ways. With the continued participation of the Ruckelshaus Center, the attention of the Governor’s Office and the steadfast work of local leaders, it’s clear to us the basin is on the right path to approach both issues on equal footing.