Satsop River Erosion Threatens Farmland Near Confluence With Chehalis River

Steve Willis Has Watched Large Chunks of His Land Be Washed Away by River in Grays Harbor County


Editor’s Note: This story is part of "Headwaters to Harbor," a project by The Chronicle to document the Chehalis River from Pe Ell to Grays Harbor while highlighting people and issues connected to the river along the way. Our coverage is compiled at

Driving toward Steve Willis’ farm near the confluence of the Satsop and Chehalis rivers, one can watch the Satsop nuclear towers disappear behind Fuller’s Hill.

The Chehalis runs just past the foot of the hill, hidden from view by a thick riparian zone of trees and invasive knotweed.

The Satsop, however, carves its way through Willis’ fertile farm sediment so abruptly that it’s hard to miss.

For years, the river has been biting away at the farmland, swallowing up his acreage.

A glacier-fed river coming out of the Olympics, the Satsop brings with it plenty of gravel. As the gravel builds up on one side of the riverbank across from the Willis farm on Willis Road near Brady, there’s only one other place for the river to go — into the soft, rich soil.

The erosion is worsened by major flooding.

In the afternoon on Sunday, Willis loaded reporters on the back of his four-wheeler and made a beeline toward the Satsop.

Though he was polite, his frustration was obvious. His biggest concern is losing the land his family has farmed on since 1925. However, he wasn’t there to gripe about the river itself, rather the projects being done there.

Willis said the engineered log jams upstream were blown out by major flooding this year, resulting in economic losses for taxpayers. When asked what entity was responsible for the log jams, Willis mentioned the Chehalis Basin Board, but was not totally sure of the answer.

But more problematic even than what he sees as failed projects and lost money is what he qualifies as simple mismanagement of the river. If Willis were to have his way, the gravel on the opposite bank would be dug out and sold — which he said would make money for the seller — thereby redirecting the flow of the Satsop through two gravel riverbanks and away from his property, and the land of his neighbors and cousin just downstream.

Riprap is clearly visible from his property, including log jacks and jams meant to build up the banks, but the erosion has not quit, he said.

In the 1980s, Willis said the University of Washington had scientists studying the gravel mining taking place on the Satsop. They determined that too much gravel was being removed from the river. But Willis said they weren’t removing enough. He attempted to debate with the studiers many times, until he was eventually served a cease and desist order.

“I tried talking to people about Dave Montgomery, he's another (scientist),” Willis said. “He wrote a book that says that farmers are the erosion of civilization. Because farmers are eroding their land because they till it, or whatever it is. I approached him and said, ‘Hey, come on out, I'll show you what erosion is. PhDs are the erosion of civilizations.’ And he hasn’t responded back.”

According to a 2019 editorial by Capital Press, Terry Willis — who is married to Willis’ cousin, Greg Willis, and is a former Grays Harbor County commissioner — said they placed their manufactured home three-quarters of a mile from the river in 1980. In 2019, the river was less than 100 feet away from the home.

Willis claims the erosion is problematic for more than just lost farmland as well, saying that one acre of land in the river equates to 25,000 cubic yards of silt, which he claimed was not good for salmon habitat.

“This guy had to tear his house down on the Nisqually because the river was gonna erode into his land. I would have taken that excavator over to the bank and started putting that dirt in the river because that's their intent. Their intent was to have that river erode into the land where his house was sitting,” Willis said.