Dam Clears Hurdles, Environmental Study Awaits


A series of procedural moves at the federal, state and county level have given momentum to the proposed $385 million dam project near Pe Ell, designed to mitigate the Chehalis River flooding that has devastated the area. 

“There’s some good wins happening right now,” said Erik Martin, administrator of the Chehalis Basin Flood Control Zone District, which is the project’s sponsor. Martin is also the Lewis County’s public works director and will become the county manager in August.

The biggest stroke of progress is an agreement between the Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin a joint scoping process on Sept. 28. That process determines the scale of the environmental impact statement (EIS) that each agency will have to review. The scoping process is a 30-day period, while the full environmental review is expected to take about two years. 

“It has made a lot of momentum just recently in the last month or two,” Martin said. “Setting a scoping date, that’s a big deal. ... For them to commit to that date is really positive.”

Martin said scoping will look at about 28 topics on an environmental checklist and determine which of them will need to be included in the EIS, and to what extent they will need to be studied. While the federal and state reviews need to happen independently, Ecology and the Corps are collaborating so that certain aspects — such as public comment or specific studies  — don’t require 

redundant work from each. A third-party contractor has been brought on to establish firewall protocols between the agencies.

“They’re going to do everything they can to do a joint effort,” Martin said. “There still needs to be two processes, but they’re going to do it concurrently.”

On Monday, county commissioners — who also act as the Zone District’s supervisors — approved a measure to request an EIS from Ecology. Known as a determination of significance, it gives regulators the go-ahead to skip the process of deciding whether the project is large enough to require an environmental review.

“We all know this is going to result in an EIS,” Martin told commissioners. “You can say, ‘You know what, we all know this is a significant project.’ Let’s just skip that part, be more efficient and go straight to the EIS.”

The process of determining significance can take up to a month, Martin said, time that will be saved by acknowledging the necessity of the environmental review.

“We know it’s a significant project,” said Commissioner Gary Stamper. “There’s no question about that. We’re eliminating that determination.”

Meanwhile, the Zone District is finalizing what’s known as a 214 Agreement with the Corps, which allows the Zone District to fund a position or positions within the Corps specifically focused on the dam project. Having positions specifically dedicated to the project will allow it to be reviewed significantly faster than if it were left to Corps employees who have many other projects on their agenda. 

While the recent moves are all designed to speed up the review of the dam project, Martin said they’re not intended to circumvent a thorough process.

“Expedite is a tricky word,” he said. “We’re not skipping anything, we’re not cutting corners, we’re not skipping steps. We’re throwing more people and resources at it to try to get it done.”

The proposed dam would stand 254 feet tall with a spillway that’s 210 feet wide. Under normal conditions, water would flow through as it normally does, with five tunnels designed to allow fish passage. During flood events, the dam could retain 65,000 acre-feet of water in a temporary reservoir of 720 acres. The dam could later be expanded to create a permanent reservoir.

Estimates show the dam would have reduced peak flooding in the Chehalis River by 27 percent during the 2007 flood that caused heavy damage to the area. Projections say the dam could cut I-5 closures by three days and save nearly $1 billion in damage over a century of use.