Army veteran Timm Gunderson’s dream of rural country life — a quiet place where he could tend a garden and keep horses while healing from the physical and emotional wounds he suffered during a suicide bombing in Iraq in 2003 — began washing away last winter.
He said it’s normal for his lower pasture to collect water and create a seasonal pond during the wet season. But by February, water levels on the five acres surrounding his two-story farmhouse were still on the rise.
“We had severe flooding this year,” said Gunderson, 40, who purchased his home on Koeppen Road Southeast between Rainier and Yelm in July 2012. “It’s never been like this before.”
Nearly 23 inches of rain fell in Western Washington between December and February, making 2015-16 the wettest winter on record, according to the National Weather Service office in Seattle. Thanks to a deluge of heavy rains, local rivers swelled and low-lying roads flooded in Thurston County numerous times during the winter.
Gunderson and several of his neighbors ended up with high water on their properties. One neighbor had to boil her drinking water after her well was flooded.
But Gunderson said he and his neighbors believe their properties would have been able to handle the extra water if a local drainage system was working properly. They suspect a culvert on a nearby 40-acre ranch is plugged.
“And there’s nowhere for the water to go,” Gunderson said. “… When they function properly, the water comes up to a certain level and stays there and doesn’t travel any further up.”
Instead, water continued to collect and swallow the property that surrounds Gunderson’s 1,446-square-foot, three-bedroom home. Mossy green marks, from where about 2 feet of stagnant water sat, cover the side of his barn, which is on the high side of his acreage.
Flood waters forced Gunderson and a neighbor to move their horses to a parcel down the street for a few months.
“It shorted out the electrical to the barn,” Gunderson said about the floodwater.
For months, Gunderson and his partner, Shannon Sutton, and their daughter Courtney Koivu, 16, also lived under the stress of wondering if they were going to end up without a place to live because of possible sanitation issues with their septic and well systems. Until recently, when some of the water receded, they were rationing hot water and heat because their propane tank was surrounded by water.
“(The propane company) they were, like, ‘Sorry, we can’t fill it; we don’t have waders,’ ” Gunderson said.
Water crept up to their back porch, but it didn’t get into the house. However, the ground around their house was saturated.
“You can see that the deck is starting to sag from the moisture,” Gunderson said.
Sutton broke down in tears when asked to talk about the flood.
“The stress, day in and day out,” she said. “The hardest thing is seeing what we’ve lost.”
The flooding on Gunderson’s property caught the attention of Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero.
“Once a month, I pass his property,” said Romero, who hosts monthly “coffee chats” in south county to connect with constituents. “One week I went by, and it was like a big lake.”
Romero visited the farm last winter and directed staff to look into the issue. Gunderson had hoped county officials could intervene and force the ranch owner to clear the blocked culvert.
Instead, the county’s legal staff determined it was a civil issue, Romero said.
“It’s the responsibility of the landowners, and it’s more of something between neighbors,” she said.
Thurston County interim manager Ramiro Chavez said he also visited Gunderson’s property in February, when he was head of the county’s Public Works Department.
“Throughout our research, we determined that we don’t have any records as to when those culverts were installed,” Chavez said. “We’ve never maintained them, and the inlet and the outlets of those two culverts are located on private property. So what it means is that the county really doesn’t have any jurisdiction on those two culverts.”
Gunderson shared his story with Melissa Genson, who blogs about south county issues. In her research, Genson learned that Sara Perkins, the neighbor who owns the property they suspect has a blocked culvert, was operating two businesses on the property without county permits.
Had Perkins applied for county permits, she would have been required to provide detailed stormwater and drainage plans for the property, Genson wrote in a story that was published June 29 on souththurstonjournal.com. The businesses were a veterinary clinic and a stable for boarding horses, Genson wrote.
Chavez said he believes the flooding and Perkins’ “unauthorized land use” are two separate issues. He said a formal notice of violation regarding the un-permitted activities was issued to Perkins on April 4.
On May 2, the county received a letter that Perkins had hired legal representation and planned to appeal the notice of violation, Chavez said. A few weeks later, the county was told Perkins and her attorney wanted to begin the permitting process, he said.
On June 8, a meeting was held for both parties to begin talking about what was needed to get the county’s permits, Chavez said.
“During the meeting, the attorney noted the respondent has stopped the un-permitted activity on the property, and she will not continue the process of securing a permit,” Chavez said. “County staff has been instructed to continue to monitor this parcel to ensure compliance to that.”
Calls to Perkins’ office were not returned to The Olympian.
As for the flooding situation, Chavez said he believes county officials have done everything they can do to help Gunderson.
“Unfortunately, the parameters were very closed to what we could do,” Chavez said.
Romero said she asked a staff member to email a list of resources to Gunderson, in the event the flooding made it unsafe for the family to stay at their home.
“We also asked around to find some nonprofits, legal services and some assistance for temporary housing just to give him some alternatives,” Romero said. “I didn’t want to just leave him hanging out there, for sure.”
But the resource list didn’t go over well with Gunderson.
“That was the biggest slap in the face, I think, of the whole thing,” Gunderson said. “That really aggravated me. It was like, ‘So you won’t do anything? But here are resources to help you out.’ ”
Gunderson said he thinks county officials could do more. If the culvert remains blocked, the water will eventually spill over from his property and flood Koeppen Road, which is owned and maintained by the county.
Gunderson said he’s also reached out to other agencies, including the state Department of Ecology, because wetlands are involved, the state Department of Health because of the sanitation issues; and the state Department of Transportation, which owns Highway 507 bordering his property. He’s even been in talks with state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, and U.S. Congressman Denny Heck, D-Olympia, about the issue.
Gunderson said he doesn’t want to walk away from his investment — it was purchased with a VA loan, so he said that debt would follow him even if he quit paying the mortgage.
“The fight with the county is to get the culverts open so we don’t have future flooding for myself and the rest of my neighbors that are down here, that have been suffering this flooding this year,” Gunderson said.
Olympia developer Danny Gabriel, who met Gunderson a couple of years ago through his nonprofit the Wounded Veterans Fishing Program, recently launched an online fundraising campaign to help Gunderson’s fight.
As of Monday, about $600 had been raised, mostly through small donations. The goal is to raise $20,000 to help Gunderson pay for a civil suit against the ranch owner or the county, Gabriel said.
“He’s going to need some kind of legal representation very soon,” Gabriel said.
Gunderson said his experience has left him determined to get someone to do the right thing — and at this point, he said that might be the neighbor or county officials or both. He said he didn’t want to file a lawsuit, but that’s starting to look like the only option that will get water off of his property.
He said he’ll do what it takes to save his farm and his retirement dream.
“It’s really relaxing, and it’s a slower life,” Gunderson said. “And I can work on going to see my docs and healing from my injuries and having surgeries. … I like to be able to have the peace and quiet and enjoy the big splotch of land.”