Our Views: When It Comes to the Dam, There’s Historic Unity in the Basin


A photograph long displayed in The Chronicle’s newsroom tells an interesting yet frustrating story. 

In the undated black and white image, a well-dressed gentleman thumbs through a stack of studies focused on flooding in the Chehalis River Basin. Behind him, a map shows areas of the Twin Cities that were inundated by water during flooding in 1971 and 1974. 

“Don’t let it happen again,” a printed message above the map reads. 

Inset on the photo is a hand-drawn picture of a tombstone with the words “Flood Control: Born 1946 — Died 1949.” 

One needn’t be a historian to know flooding has stricken our basin for as long as history has been recorded, from stories handed down from American Indian tribes to the earliest photographs of the 20th century. 

And while a solution to chronic and occasionally deadly flooding has long been pursued, competing visions for how to accomplish such a gargantuan feat have over the decades given way to infighting again and again. The story of how to address another chronic problem, the decline in the Chehalis basin fishery, has the same history of studying, fighting and forgetting.

That changed in the aftermath of the devastating and historic flooding of 2007. While local leaders initially clashed on potential solutions, that familiar landscape of bickering between government officials at the local, state and federal levels eventually coalesced into what is likely the most unified approach to flood mitigation and salmon recovery the Chehalis River Basin has ever seen. 

From the formation of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority that included representatives for cities, counties and tribes from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor, to the creation of the state-level Office of the Chehalis River Basin, the last decade has played host to unparalleled agreement on what is needed to help take the edge off of catastrophic flooding. At the same time, the first ever basinwide aquatic species restoration plan has been developed, and implementation has begun.

That brings us to the Chehalis River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project, a sweeping and comprehensive plan to tackle flooding as part of the greater Chehalis Basin Strategy, which would be implemented in tandem with the plan for aquatic species enhancement in the basin. A linchpin of the flood project is a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art dam on the upper reaches of the Chehalis River near Pe Ell. The structure would allow for the free flow of the river at all times, except for when catastrophic flooding is imminent or forecasted. Studies have shown that such a facility could protect more than a thousand homes and buildings downstream if constructed. It’s possible it could even save lives. Beyond the dam, though, is the strategy’s promise of millions upon millions of dollars for aquatic species restoration. A state environmental review found that the structure and associated construction built alone could have a negative impact on a portion of fish runs that use the upper Chehalis basin, but the proponents believe that those impacts can be mitigated. They also point to the fact that climate change impacts forecast devastation to the salmon runs if the Chehalis Basin process breaks down.

Back to the unity of the basin. While the Chehalis and Quinalt tribes have expressed criticism of the potential impacts of the dam outlined in the state environmental review, elsewhere there has been unparalleled support for the Chehalis Basin Strategy. 

Last year alone, 12 Chehalis Basin governments voted to support the effort through resolutions that spoke of the promise of ongoing flood reduction plans. 

“Lewis County foresees a future through the Chehalis Basin process where our families and communities are protected from the worst of the periodic catastrophic floods that hit our Basin and a future where habitat restoration projects have turned a declining fishery into a vibrant fishery,” commissioners wrote in May. 

Grays Harbor County approved a nearly identical resolution. 

“The Department of Ecology’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement shows the District’s proposed Chehalis River Flood Damage Reduction Project will deliver significant reductions in catastrophic levels of flooding in the Basin communities and provide substantial reductions in impact and flood inundation for thousands of structures, including homes, schools, churches, small businesses, state highways and I-5 provided impacts are acceptably mitigated,” the Grays Harbor County resolution declares.

Beyond the two counties, cities have also thrown their support behind the project, including Aberdeen, Bucoda, Centralia, Chehalis, Cosmopolis, Hoquiam, Montesano, Napavine, Oakville and Pe Ell. 

We don’t wish to minimize the concerns of the tribes, who are well within their rights to voice their opinions on the plan. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviewed 62 alternatives in the basin, and none of them merited additional evaluation without the proposed dam. 

The Chehalis River Basin is at a turning point. The direction we go will determine whether we achieve a historic victory in the century-long effort against catastrophic flooding or, if we fail to act, become another cautionary tale, perhaps in the form of an old photograph hanging from the walls of a newsroom that has for decades seen efforts to mitigate flooding result in abject failure.