For 100 years, people have been fighting about solutions to flooding and the declining fishery in the Chehalis basin. The communities more concerned about flood damage have fought the communities more interested in protecting the fishery. One-hundred years later, there are fewer salmon and steelhead in the Chehalis Basin and our periodic giant floods keep getting worse and damaging more families and communities.
Fighting hasn’t worked.
In 2012, things began to change. Fighting began to turn into collaboration. Then-governor Chris Gregoire followed by Gov. Jay Inslee, who were supported by bipartisan state legislators, gathered together fish advocates and proponents of flood control and challenged them to find solutions to both problems at the same time. The original Chehalis Basin Governor’s Work Group included then Chehalis Tribal Chair David Burnett, two representatives from Gray Harbor County, Vickie Raines and Jay Gordon, Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela and J. Vander Stoep from Lewis County. A few years ago, thw state passed a law creating the Office of the Chehalis Basin (OCB) charged with “aggressively pursuing” flood damage reduction and aquatic species enhancement. The office is directed by a board of seven members. Many of the original Governor’s Work Group members remain part of the board of today’s Office of the Chehalis Basin board. This board also includes Quinault Indian Nation Vice President Tyson Johnston, Chehalis Tribal Chair Harry Pickernell, Lewis County’s Edna Fund and Steve Malloch, an environmental lawyer and advocate from Seattle.
The collaborative work of this group has led to enormous progress, including bringing funding for more than 100 local flood reduction and fish habitat projects. Also, for the first time, there is now a science-based basinwide habitat recovery plan for aquatic species called the Aquatic Species Restoration Plan (ASRP). This habitat plan would encompass hundreds of miles of streamside restoration with an initial target of helping the areas most important to the restoration of the spring Chinook salmon. The ASRP is already being implemented on the ground with more than a dozen miles of restoration completed. The ASRP will work only with willing landowners and involves no use of eminent domain.
The ASRP holds promise to turn around a declining fishery even in the harmful face of climate change.
But, in the end, whether the ASRP goes forward depends on funding from the state with potential contributions from the federal government. And continued funding depends on the current coalition holding together to continue to move forward toward a basinwide fish plan and a basinwide flood plan.
Neither side can roll over top of the other. The OCB board is designed to work if there is continued consensus, and it will fail if there is not. In the end, if the tribes say “no” to water retention, it will stop.
But the same is true on the other side. If the representatives of the non-tribal communities in the basin do not see there is a real basinwide flood damage reduction plan, consensus will break down and funding for the ASRP will slow or stop. The participants will go forward together or not at all.
Right now, we see wide support for the ASRP, including among the local agriculture conservation groups. But that support is premised on the hope that the same farms and other private properties that bear the worst of flooding will receive significant protection through water retention. The federal environmental impact statement showed that the impact on the basin fishery of the proposed water retention facility is almost invisible on a basinwide scale. All of the impacts seen are above Rainbow Falls where a tiny fraction of the basin’s salmon and steelhead spawn. Recent reports from the project proponent, the Flood Zone District, show that those impacts can be avoided or mitigated.
So, the process is heading to a key decision. Can the parties meet halfway? Can they find a “win-win” that creates a net basinwide win for the fishery and a net win for the families and communities most vulnerable to catastrophic flooding?
Nobody will get everything they want out of this process, but it seems clear to us that with some give and take, with some compromise, every participant can gain a lot. Leadership, vision and courage can turn a century of failure into an historic step forward.
This is the fourth installment of an ongoing series focusing on the proposed dam on the Chehalis River. Installments will be published in each Saturday edition of The Chronicle.