Under the direction of the governor, and after pushback from tribes and environmental groups against a proposed dam in the Chehalis River, the state’s Office of Chehalis Basin held a public meeting Tuesday to gather input about non-dam alternatives that could similarly prevent flood damage in the basin.
“The (Chehalis Basin) Board heard the message loud and clear that many people are concerned about and opposed to a proposed dam. Individuals and organized interest groups have expressed understandable concerns about the environmental impacts that were identified by the state and federal environmental reviews,” OCB Director Andrea McNamara Doyle said. “So the board is asking: what else can be done to make people feel safer from flooding?”
Over the summer, Gov. Jay Inslee paused the state Department of Ecology’s work on an Environmental Impact Statement on the dam due to concerns raised during the public process for the EIS. In a letter, he tasked the OCB with identifying a non-dam strategy. Now, the board must develop recommendations about the dam and potential alternatives to Inslee and the legislature by March.
The dam has been supported by many Lewis County leaders, including all incoming and outgoing county commissioners. It has also been backed by other leaders downstream in the basin. The dam itself is being proposed by Lewis County’s Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority and has been identified as part of the overall Chehalis Basin Strategy to prevent flooding.
Since the state’s draft EIS was released, the dam is opposed by the Chehalis Tribe, the Quinault Indian Nation, and several environmental groups which point to the significant impact the structure could have on already-suffering fish populations. Proponents of the dam have argued that the effects on those species would be minimal and confined to a small area and that climate change predictions would result in similar losses with or without the dam.
On Tuesday, McNamara Doyle recognized the heightened tensions around the dam, and the necessary balancing act of treaty fishing rights, environmental preservation, and the protection of urbanized communities in the basin.
“It’s a wickedly complicated public policy challenge,” she said. “To succeed in the mission will require addressing some of the most complex and politically-charged issues policy makers have to face.”
Brian Stewart, a resident of the basin and coordinator for Conservation Northwest, said he didn’t feel like the OCB was thinking out-of-the-box to come up with viable alternatives.
Alternatives that were discussed include improving levees, elevating structures, preventing further development in high-risk areas, increasing water storage capabilities in the floodplain, and improving the region’s emergency response plan during major floods. In the end, McNamara Doyle said in some cases it may end up making the most sense for residents themselves to simply relocate.
“It seems like the board is still strongly pursuing a dam ... This seems inconsistent with the governor’s direction to focus on non-dam alternatives,” one participant, Felton Jenkins, said. “I think we just need to focus on other alternatives and stop focusing on the dam.”
But some attendees, like Ron Averill and Julie Balmelli-Powe, argued that the dam was the only realistic option to prevent catastrophic flooding.
“When we get rain of 20 inches, like we got in 2007 … you’re not going to be able to solve (that) with a number of the recommendations I see here,” Averill said.
Several of these projects are already occurring in the basin — levees have been built and improved, and the Chehalis Lead Entity has been working for decades with landowners to complete local restoration projects. Cow pads — elevated areas to protect livestock during floods — have also been constructed throughout the basin.
But if the OCB were to abandon the idea of a dam, non-dam alternatives would likely be reved up. And there isn’t a clear picture of what that long-term strategy would look like. The board is still identifying and analyzing alternatives, and, according to McNamara Doyle, there hasn’t been a clear cost estimate. The dam would cost more than $400 million.
The OCB is soliciting more feedback from members of the public through an anonymous survey that can be found here: https://survey.zohopublic.com/zs/mTz1CZ