Just more than a decade since its formation in the wake of the devastating 2007 flood, the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority has earned the James Lee Witt Award for Excellence in Floodplain Management — a prestigious national honor that recognizes a local “front line” program for its work in the field.
The award is given annually by the Association of State Floodplain Managers and can be given to local or regional governments. The Flood Authority is made up of three counties — Lewis, Grays Harbor and Thurston — as well as 10 cities and towns in the basin.
Edna Fund, a county commissioner and Flood Authority board member, said the recognition is particularly satisfying given the frustrations the group endured not long ago.
“Winning an award for getting things done —in the past, it was ‘you guys aren’t doing anything, you’re fighting, people are walking out of meetings,’” she said. “And here we’re all together, working on the projects together. It’s very gratifying.”
Michele Mihalovich, public information officer with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said the Flood Authority’s work stood out.
“(The) Flood Authority has led an aggressive program to mitigate flood risk, reduce flood damage, and increase flood threat awareness in order to transform floodplain management in the Basin from a reactive to a proactive culture,” she wrote in an email.
One of the Flood Authority’s highlights is the small projects it’s taken on, which now number more than 100 and have drawn funding totaling more than $40 million. The group’s close relationships with local municipalities has allowed it to do effective, small-scale work that has an immediate impact, said board member Ron Averill.
“The small projects, they see the value,” he said. “Those all start from the grassroots level. They get identified at the lower level.”
Averill pointed to a recent project to address flooding in China Creek, which runs through downtown Centralia. The Flood Authority led efforts, in conjunction with the city of Centralia, to re-channel the creek and excavate storage ponds to reduce the flooding risk.
“China Creek was a project we could never get the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers to look at, because it didn’t have enough cubic feet per second of water flow in it,” he said. “By doing it as a small project at the Flood Authority, we were able to over two cycles get $4 million in there, and we’ll be able to correct that problem. We would not have been able to do that without the Flood Authority and the small projects that we run.”
Fund also highlighted that project, noting that the China Creek issue had first been presented to her by some friends at church.
“We’re so close to the real people who talk about the issues, so we can react quickly,” she said. “We can solve problems close to where people are.”
In the past, the Flood Authority has been plagued by dysfunction, as it sat within a variety of state and local groups with various jurisdictions and interests — to say nothing of the competing interests of its own members. But since the formation of the state’s Office of the Chehalis Basin, and the willingness of the Chehalis and Quinault Tribes to be a part of that process, all parties say the recent spirit has been one of collaboration.
“Cooperation in both (the Office of the Chehalis Basin and Flood Authority), with the tribes, in both local projects and major projects has improved fantastically,” Averill said. “I think this is one of the reasons we got that award.”
In recognizing the award, Mihalovich highlighted various Flood Authority projects, including retrofitting homes with flood vents, building elevated farm pads to save livestock and building log jams into waterways.
The two initiatives highlighted in the award proposal were work to improve regulatory standards and the installation of stream gauges to form a flood warning system.
“Because of these initiatives, communities and residents in the Chehalis River Basin are now substantially more aware and better prepared for flooding than ever before,” Mihalovich wrote.
Averill also highlighted the gauges, noting the 12 instruments are operated and maintained by the local jurisdictions that make up the Flood Authority, with current water levels displayed on the group’s website.
Meanwhile, Fund said the group allows local government to speak with a unified voice at the state level.
“We’re the ground-level people,” she said. “This is the only place where we have all these cities that are at the table. It’s really nice that we all go together to the Legislature to get things done and that the tribes are with us too. … We’ve done a heck of a lot.”