DeBolt Bill Would Provide $700 Million for Chehalis Basin Flood Projects Over 14 Years


Though a bill sponsored by state house Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, would provide for $700 million in funding over the next 14 years, some members of the Chehalis Basin Board said Thursday it wasn’t enough to make a dent in the work they have planned. 

“I can imagine people saying this isn’t enough money,” said board member J. Vander Stoep, who noted the office’s draft Aquatic Species Restoration Plan alone would cost more than $700 million. “And does this cover everything that is needed to address aquatic species and flood in the Chehalis Basin? … And the answer’s ‘no.’”

The Chehalis Basin Board held a special meeting Thursday afternoon in Olympia to discuss whether it should officially endorse the bill.

Vander Stoep also predicted questions about whether it was wise to fund projects before the board has agreed on exactly which projects to fund. However, he said he believes the funding being in place would help make for a smoother process going forward. 

“This is the biggest first step conceivable,” Vander Stoep said. “If we don’t have this available, the first question when that conversation starts is, ‘Well how to I have assurance that there’s going to be money for the fish side or money for the flood side?’ It’s kind of a cart and a horse question.” 

Harry Pickernell, chairman of the board representing the Chehalis Tribe, said he felt much the way Vander Stoep described. 

“I think this is our exact stance at this moment during this meeting,” he said. “We do not support it, but we do not oppose it either. It’s a good place to start.”

Pickernell and Tyson Johnston, representing the Quinault Indian Nation, both asked for a few days to review the issue and make a decision. 

“We feel the authorization is a good first step, but it’s not anywhere near that total need to address the dual goals that we are facing,” Johnston said. “We’ll support board action going forward.”

Vander Stoep said he doesn’t know of any strong opponent of the bill, but said it might find opposition from other organizations looking for state capital funding.

He also said that with Chehalis Basin lawmakers in positions of authority in the House and Senate, this might be the best chance of getting such a large amount of money set aside for basin-wide projects. 

“I think we’re going to need to decide pretty soon if we’re going to have a shot at seriously pushing this this session,” he said. 

The state Legislature is in a 60-day session. 

Lewis County Commissioner and Chehalis Basin Board Member Edna Fund voiced her support for the legislation and said she believes the other members of the county commission would agree. 

The board did not make a decision Thursday. It will address the issue again at a meeting scheduled for 4 p.m., Jan. 29, at a place to be determined. A phone-in option will be available.

The initial bill, introduced by the 20th District lawmaker, authorized $480 million in bonds to go to the Office of the Chehalis River Basin, created by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2017, to pay for flood mitigation and habitat recovery. 

DeBolt has long proposed legislation to create funding for Chehalis River flood reduction programs. 

An analysis two years ago found that if no action is taken, damage from flooding could exceed $3.5 billion over the next 100 years.

Five of the largest recorded flooding events on the Chehalis have occurred in the last 20 years. 

“The Chehalis Basin has a long history of flooding in our region — including 18 floods in the last 20 years,” DeBolt wrote in a news release. “The human suffering, property loss and environmental damage need to be mitigated.”

The money would be provided to the Office of the Chehalis Basin, which was created by the Legislature to work on a collaborative approach to reducing flooding and improving habitat for aquatic species called the Chehalis Basin Strategy. It includes dozens of projects from the headwaters to the harbor. The Office of the Chehalis Basin received $73 million in last year’s capital budget. 

DeBolt said the funding “would help finance these projects over five biennia with a dedicated account for taxable bond proceeds. The Legislature would approve projects that could be financed by the bonds prior to their sale.”

A proposed dam on the Chehalis River near Pe Ell is one of the largest proposals made as part of ongoing efforts to mitigate flooding. 

An updated version of the bill increases the total bond amount to $700 million, spread out over seven bienniums — 14 years. 

The board of the Office of the Chehalis Basin would still need to ask for appropriations of the funding and be granted it by the Legislature. 

“It’s not a guarantee of funding … but rather more like a priority reservation,” said Andrea McNamara Doyle, director of the office, during Thursday’s meeting. “The bill also specifies that the bond authorization would not expire if the full amount is not appropriated by the end of the seven bienna, so that’s a target, but it’s not a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.” 

The bill is not yet scheduled for a hearing in the House, she said.

The model for the legislation is a similar funding bill that provided money for projects in the Office of the Columbia River in Eastern Washington. The money could be used for any project done by the Office of the Chehalis Basin for flood damage reduction or aquatic species habitat.

The Chehalis River Basin is the second-largest in the state, with the Columbia River Basin being the largest.