The newly appointed Office of the Chehalis River Basin will soon begin taking major steps in the dual goals of reducing flooding and enhancing aquatic species habitat, efforts that have at times competed against one another in the past.
The office, which was created by the Legislature and is expected to receive more than $40 million in funding when budget negotiations come to a close, is comprised of local government leaders, tribes and representatives of environmental interests.
A major bureaucratic threshold was crossed Friday with the release of a final programmatic Environmental Impact Statement by the state Department of Ecology. It lays out options for accomplishing both goals and outlines how the Office of the Chehalis Basin plans to spend money allocated by the Legislature. The programmatic EIS supports decision-making on short- and long-term actions in the basin, according to Gordon White, Ecology’s lead manager working with the Governor’s Chehalis Basin Work Group.
“The PEIS generated a tremendous response from citizens, tribes, local, state and federal agencies, and stakeholder groups, with over 500 comments received on the Draft EIS and hundreds of people in attendance at public meetings to share their view on the best path forward,” he said.
For flooding, much of the focus is on determining the feasibility of a dam on the upper Chehalis River near Pe Ell, which has been favored by local government leaders. It’s one of four alternatives identified by Ecology, with another “no action” alternative that looked at what would happen if current practices continue.
Another course of action centers on restorative flood protection, combined actions seeking to return areas of the floodplain to natural states that could hold more floodwater during heavy rain events.
On species enhancement, the Office of the Chehalis River Basin hopes to work with landowners on projects to improve habitat by correcting fish passage barriers, adding plants and vegetation and reconnecting floodplain and oxbows, along with other measures.
Members of the board for the Office of the Chehalis Basin told The Chronicle Thursday they’ll seek to balance the two-pronged approach to tackling both matters as the Legislature and the Governor’s Office continue to provide unprecedented support and resources for the Chehalis River Basin.
Steve Malloch, a member of the Governor’s Work Group, an environmental activist and one of Gov. Jay Inslee’s appointments to the Office of the Chehalis River Basin, said there is a large concern from the environmental community on the prospect of a dam.
He said if the environmental community believes the options and concerns for species enhancement that arise aren’t being looked at legitimately and to a high degree, then the process will be a difficult one. It’s important that the aquatic species restoration plan is not a “paper plan,” but something that is being heavily evaluated and scrutinized, he said.
“I think it’s hard to say today how real it’s going to be in the future, but at least the plans they are setting up, the staffing, the people involved, the resources involved — that gives us a shot,” Malloch said.
One common theme between chronic flooding and troubled aquatic species habitat is that conditions surrounding both issues are predicted to become worse if no action is taken in the years ahead.
The Chehalis Basin Strategy brings a comprehensive and integrated approach for managing the second largest river basin in Washington where major floods are getting larger and more frequent, and salmon runs are declining. The basin is also the most diverse in the state when it comes to amphibians, and there is work to be done to document populations.
White, the Department of Ecology’s state floodplain manager, said the Chehalis River Basin is at a turning point.
“Peak flood levels have been rising in the basin over the last 30 years, a trend that will continue and worsen under climate change into the future,” he said. “Aquatic species and their habitats are significantly degraded in the basin and conditions get even worse with climate change.”
The executive summary of the Programmatic EIS states that under climate change conditions, the peak flows are estimated to increase 66 percent for a 100-year flood. That takes into account temperatures, droughts, torrential rains and severe floods that are increasing and are projected to continue as the Earth warms.
If action is not taken, White said, the basin will likely see an increase in damage from flooding and the loss of the salmon fishery.
Jim Kramer, a consultant who helps facilitate the Governor’s Work Group and the Flood Authority, said the future of spring chinook is dire because of climate change. Estimates show spring-run chinook salmon could decrease by 87 percent if no action is taken.
The Office of the Chehalis Basin board will be overseen by the state Department of Ecology. Along with Gov. Jay Inslee’s two appointments to the board — Malloch and Chehalis attorney J. Vander Stoep — the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority has three appointees and the Confederate Tribes of the Chehalis and the Quinault Indian Nation will each have a seat at the table.
The three appointees from the Flood Authority are Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund, Chehalis Valley farmer and Washington Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon, and Grays Harbor County Commissioner Vickie Raines.
There will be an open hiring process for the director, who will work directly under Ecology’s Director Maia Bellon.
The project manager will be Chrissy Bailey, who was the project manager for the EIS. White said there will be several administrative assistants. That will include a person who works with local governments on floodplain ordinances, and someone who will work with the state, Fish and Wildlife and conservation districts on local flood and fish projects.
“It’s going to be a relatively small staff,” White said. “The core staff will help the board stay focused on these twin challenges of flood and fish.”
Ecology will continue to retain Jim Kramer from the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to work as the facilitator. His involvement, and that of the center, has been credited with bringing the various interests together after years of disagreements and infighting in the basin.
The Office of the Chehalis Basin will have its own resources in the upcoming budget to complete a site-specific environmental review for the dam near Pe Ell, a corridor study and testing of the feasibility of the restorative floodplain option — alternative four — and work with local governments on the continuation of flood proofing efforts.
Inslee included a $60 million investment in his budget proposal for the 2017 to 2019 biennium, which is currently under consideration by the Legislature. Funding for future years has not been determined. The House and Senate both proposed more than $40 million.
Vander Stoep, a local attorney and member on the Governor’s Work Group, the predecessor of the new office, said the turning point for progress began five years ago.
“Since 2012, the whole process has gone remarkably smoothly,” he said, noting the contributions of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center.
Until the creation of the Office, Vander Stoep said, despite the different agencies working toward a solution, no one had the legal responsibility to solve the problems. Now the agency will be charged with aggressively pursuing a solution for long-term flood damage reduction and aquatic species restoration in the basin.
“It’s a specific legal charge to move heaven and earth to solve this,” he said.
Prior to 2012, at least 833 studies were conducted on various issues in the Chehalis Basin, none of which were comprehensive. Since that time, efforts have been synchronized, Vander Stoep said.
That has led to an “unprecedented nature of engagement,” according to White.
“Everyone has a different stake in the basin, and differing opinions, but they’re working toward actions that are integrated and mutually supportive to address both flooding and habitat,” he said.
There is no “silver bullet” or “slam dunk” solution, White said, but he emphasized that the no action option or maintaining the status quo is unacceptable to those involved.
The time for action is now, he said.
He emphasized the EIS is not a decision or a permit. Instead, it focuses on various combined alternatives to assess the potential impacts they would have on people and the environment.
Learn more about the Chehalis Basin Strategy online at chehalisbasin.strategy.com.