The Chehalis Basin Board came to unanimous consensus during a special meeting Monday and approved a $70 million spending plan for the biennium after a summer of negotiating.
The Office of the Chehalis Basin (OCB) and its board had been working under a tightened deadline to pass the budget, with timelines for aquatic species habitat restoration and flood damage reduction projects teetering in the balance. The money was allocated to the board by the state Legislature during the last legislative session.
The board operates under a voting policy that seeks unanimous consensus and it failed to get there in June and July meetings after the Quinault Indian Tribe voiced concerns with funding related to the proposed flood retention dam based on its standing with state and federal environmental reviews.
But most of the concerns revolved around verbiage and questions within the budget the tribe held, said OCB Director Andrea McNamara Doyle.
“After reviewing the above mentioned memos, we can confirm that most of our concerns have been addressed and we can now approve most of the budget items of concern we identified following the July 1 Chehalis Basin Board meeting,” wrote Guy Capoeman, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, in a letter to Chehalis Basin Board Chair Vickie Raines.
Despite approval of the budget, Capoeman said the Tribe still has two concerns with funding related to the countywide Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District, which is due to receive funding through the budget.
The Tribe is hoping $300,000 allocated for management support by way of hiring additional Zone District staff or contractors isn’t used to support permit application development or engineering related to the flood retention facility.
Additionally, Capoeman said the Tribe could not support $560,000 to determine the feasibility of a hyporheic exchange enhancement, which is defined as a solute mixing between river waters and shallow groundwater in streambed sediments to establish cooler areas along rivers for fish habitat. Though it was included in the passed budget, the Tribe would have preferred this funding be considered by the Chehalis Basin Plan’s Aquatic Species Restoration Plan (ASRP) to consider its merits.
The $70 million spending plan allocates $30.87 million each to aquatic species habitat restoration projects and flood damage projects. It also allocates $4.36 million in integrated projects.
Both programs saw a combined reduction in funding of $560,000 when compared with July’s proposed budget, in order to add in the hyporheic exchange work.
Both the aquatic species and flood damage funds will also now budget $8.53 million each of its funds to unobligated reserves.
Funding related to creating a local actions alternative to a dam, as well as work to draft a comprehensive flood reduction damage roadmap and floodplain modeling, received a $760,000 increase from July’s draft to $3.26 million in total allocation. Additionally, funding related to the dam and airport levee saw a $931,000 line item increase to $10.53 million total over the next two years.
The board also discussed plans on how to move forward with assembling an advisory group to look at basinwide alternatives to the dam.
During Monday’s meeting, the board opted to accept input on how in line it and stakeholders were on the proposed budget. The consensus-taking was done by thumb — thumbs up if you agreed with the recommendation, thumbs sideways if you agreed but had concerns and thumbs down if you were against the recommendation.
All of the board raised their thumbs upward. But Glen Connelly, director of natural resources with the Chehalis Indian Tribe, raised his thumb sideways.
“While we have some reservations about some aspects of the budget, we feel it’s important not to delay the vital work that we need to keep moving,” he said. “Obviously, the Chehalis Tribe has a vital interest in fisheries, so we strongly support the ASRP, but we also have support for flood damage reduction.”
The Chehalis Tribe’s concern fell similarly in line with the Quinault’s: The hyporheic exchange enhancement seemed to be rushed into the budget without scientific review, and they viewed the aquatic species habitat restoration reserve as a potential political move.
But those concerns weren’t big enough to eliminate their support for the budget.
Board member J. Vander Stoep called the passage of the budget a “historic step” for the larger Chehalis Basin Strategy.
“There were many times along the way where it looked like this whole Chehalis Basin project could die,” he said, noting that flood damage and aquatic species habitat degradation are only worsening.
“The consequence of failure (was) too big. So, we keep figuring out a way to move forward together,” he said.
Vander Stoep said the passage of the budget was largely historic because of the consensus that was built between a diverse group of stakeholders.
“That by itself is important and encouraging, but also this process is tackling two gigantic problems for this very significant part of Washington state and we were stalled,” he told The Chronicle.
Projects with funding tied to the Chehalis Board’s biennium budget will start in just days, Vander Stoep said. The Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District are expected to begin identifying advantageous spots for the hyporheic exchange enhancements soon; that project will be conducted with consultation from the tribes.
The State Department of Ecology and WDFW staff gave their nods during the Monday meeting. Ecology’s Richard Doenges, a section manager, said the communication could have been clearer throughout this budgeting process: “This was a wonderful experience, but one I would not care to repeat. I only throw that out because this experience, for all the good that came out of it, was slightly disruptive and I’m hoping we can avoid that again through keeping communication open between all parties.”