Some in Lewis County say the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new flood maps couldn't come soon enough.
Others say the maps are too conservative for guiding flood-insurance policy around the Chehalis River.
Those skeptical of floodplain development say the FEMA maps are a beginning to new land-use practices in Western Washington.
Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, a member of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, which recently debated the merits of taxing Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor county residents for flood-control projects, says the maps are a moot point: Development already exists in critical areas they would bar it from.
“The basin-wide solutions we’re looking for always get snagged when development in Lewis County is compared to the other two counties,” said Valenzuela, a fierce critic of the two dam projects that have been considered for the upper Chehalis River for flood control.
RETAIN THE SPONGE
Jim Wilcox, secretary and treasurer of the Steelhead and Salmon Conservation Society, says the FEMA maps will keep sponge-like lands around the river in place to absorb floodwaters and keep worse floods from happening in the future. Without boundaries, developers could build parking lots and big-box stores there instead.
“That would be additional development, which would lead to more flooding,” Wilcox, who is based in Olympia, said. “It’s a tremendous impact on the environment.”
The Steelhead and Salmon Conservation Society also fiercely opposes dam projects, which rough estimates put at $250 million and $160 million near Pe Ell and Boistfort.
According to FEMA officials, flood maps are guidelines for municipalities and state and federal agencies to follow when enforcing building codes. If building codes do not abide by the flood maps, then property owners would not be eligible for flood-insurance protection, and a city or county would not be eligible for flood-relief from the federal government.
In the flood maps, the most restrictive guideline is deemed floodway – an area near the river that FEMA says surely floods – and restricts new development and bars reconstruction if an existing structure is damaged 51 percent or greater.
The Washington State Department of Ecology denies construction in floodways recognized by FEMA.
The Twin City Town Center, a shopping mall of smaller chain and independent businesses in Chehalis on the west side of Interstate 5, along with Walmart and Home Depot, all sit in an area that is defined as floodway in the draft FEMA maps.
‘PINEAPPLE EXPRESS’ EVENTS
Alan Hamlet, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington, recently gave the Department of Ecology a presentation on the latest findings for flooding in Western Washington. He said the FEMA maps fail to account for more extreme precipitation events in the future, which are based on precipitation-variability models from the past 30 years.
“The FEMA maps are intended to not let people make bad decisions that cost the federal government a lot of money,” Hamlet said. “And probably the FEMA maps are conservative.”
Margaret Rader, a longtime member of the Chehalis River Council, a small nonprofit Centralia organization dedicated to protecting river resources, won’t say FEMA’s maps are conservative or even justified. The federal agency’s design process is complicated and not always right, she says.
Rader says only one thing is certain about the Chehalis River: floodwaters will come again.
“FEMA is going to draw its maps based on where it’s been flooding,” Rader said. “It’s been going on forever.”
Rader says the federal agency has no other choice but to design the new maps. The Army Corps of Engineers is still about a decade away from building an 11-mile levee system near the river, and proposed earthen dams on the upper Chehalis are at least 25 years in the making – if they’re ever built.
“There is no solution in sight for flooding,” Rader said.
Hamlet says the so-called floodway won’t corral future flooding.
“A 100-year flood in the future will be more extreme than what the FEMA maps show,” Hamlet said.
Earth Economics of Tacoma is working on computer modeling that will better predict catastrophic flood events by taking into account existing capital – bridges, dams, roads, levees – as well as natural capital: wetlands, forests, permeable soils, rivers and lakes.
Earth Economics Executive Director David Batker also says the flood maps fail to factor in more frequent flood events – like the ones that inundated the Twin Cities in 1996 and 2007.
“There is no system where you can look at all the flood-protection benefits,” Batker said. “And that leaves citizens in a very tough spot.”
Batker said the FEMA maps indicate farmland is good for the floodplain – not development.
“We’ve always said that agricultural lands are beneficial to flooding,” Batker said.
Earth Economics is a nonprofit organization that considers itself dedicated to sifting out dated economic policies to find policies that are viable and sustainable. The organization in 2010 reported its findings about the Chehalis River Basin’s natural capital to the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority.
‘FUTURE OF LEWIS COUNTY’
Valenzuela, the Thurston County representative on the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, said it’s time for new land-use practices in Western Washington, which the FEMA maps will help bring about.
“In our view, you get a double-whammy when you allow development in the floodplain,” Valenzuela said.
However, Valenzuela said she understands the flood-insurance guidelines could greatly curb growth in the Twin Cities.
“I totally get that this is about the future of Lewis County,” Valenzuela said.