Despite concerns, the Lewis County commissioners in a special meeting held Wednesday morning approved funding for the next step in a proposed flood retention dam 1 mile up the Chehalis River from Pe Ell.
The commissioners, who also serve as the Chehalis River Basin Flood Control Zone District supervisors, convened to discuss an amendment to HDR Engineering, Inc.’s contract giving the firm an additional $2.5 million in funding. HDR is the engineering firm currently developing plans for the proposed water retention facility near Pe Ell.
Lewis County commissioners serve as the district’s supervisors and approved the amendment 2-0 with Commissioner Sean Swope absent.
Swope was not comfortable approving the additional funding during last week’s regular Flood Control Zone District meeting when it was first proposed and moved to table the discussion to Wednesday.
While he was not present at the special meeting Wednesday morning, he did provide a written response listing his concerns to members of the Chehalis Basin Board.
Commissioner Scott Brummer said he shared Swope’s concerns. The additional $2.5 million brings HDR’s contract total to $5.8 million.
“From my standpoint, I’ve been uneasy of this from day one, and when I say day one, I don’t mean Nov. 30 when I was sworn in for this position,” Brummer said. “I’ve had concerns about this … since the inception, and that is just because of the uncertainty.”
Brummer added he still supported the water retention facility’s construction and wants to see it, but thinks uncertainty still surrounds the project’s completion.
Office of Chehalis Basin (OCB) board member J. Vander Stoep addressed the concerns held by Swope and Brummer. According to Vander Stoep, $17 million of the office’s $70 million biennium budget is already earmarked for the water retention facility’s next design phase, which includes state and federal environmental reviews as previously reported by The Chronicle.
In an email to The Chronicle, Vander Stoep added the water retention facility’s proposed location had also been moved 1,000 feet upstream.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Vander Stoep said he spoke with Swope on Tuesday about the commissioner’s concerns. The Flood Control Zone District will need to submit funding proposals for what it plans to use the OCB’s budget for by January 2024, and according to Vander Stoep, the Office of Chehalis Basin’s budgeted money won’t be available to the district until later this summer.
“That money won’t be available to the district until legally, July 1, but practically not until August and the district has to submit their response by January,” Vander Stoep said. “That’s a limited window.”
He added he wasn’t trying to speak for Swope but said their discussion was positive and encouraged all of the supervisors to keep raising concerns and asking questions if they have more.
Vander Stoep also touched on the uncertainty concerns over the water retention facility’s construction.
“That’s the hardest part of this whole process. No one on earth can tell you assuredly, with certainty, that this will be built, no one can tell you with certainty that it won’t be built,” Vander Stoep said.
He added that he believed the water retention facility was still worth building due to its projected flooding reduction benefits.
“You compare the billion dollars in damage that happened in ‘07, and it’s gonna happen again, and it’s gonna happen again. And disabled people are gonna be hauled out of second floors of houses and boats again,” Vander Stoep said. “And I-5 is gonna be covered again, and families and businesses and schools and churches and nursing homes are gonna be whacked again. And people are gonna lose their life savings again and again and again.”
Vander Stoep said he still has “reasonable hope” the water retention facility will be constructed given its costs and benefits.
Brummer said in other discussions he had with Vander Stoep at last week’s meeting, a total of more than $320 million had been spent on various projects for the Office of Chehalis Basin for both flooding reduction and habitat restoration projects.
“I’m not saying the district hasn’t received a lot of funding, it certainly has, but it is a fraction of the overall money that’s gone to the Chehalis Basin for other projects,” said Vander Stoep.
Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said while she understood Swope’s concerns, the January 2022 flood had already proven to her the flood control benefits of holding back the main stem of the Chehalis River.
“Holding back the main stem is an incredible boon to flood control downstream. We basically had our model run with that particular flood,” Pollock said.
She supported continuing to fund and move forward with the water retention facility.
“I choose to be an optimist, and continue on that investment path. Yep, it’s a lot of heartburn, but I think it’s a reasonable choice at this point,” added Pollock.
Brummer said while he still shared some of Swope’s concerns, he believed the district needed to keep funding the project.
“I’m more than willing to continue that support,” Brummer said.