Time for action in Chehalis River Valley

Residents in the Chehalis River Valley have lived through major floods in 1996, 2007 and 2009.

Closure of Interstate 5 captures the attention of political leaders, but only for a short time after the flood. Residents have to live with the consequences for months, sometimes years.

It’s understandable that business owners and homeowners want permanent solutions to the flooding problems. It’s not too much to expect.

The Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority was created after the devastating floods of 2007 and billed as the organization to get the job done. It’s a formidable task, but one that’s absolutely necessary for the future of those whose lives have been repeatedly disrupted because of the flooding.

Authority members recently demonstrated the urgency of the tasks ahead when they ordered a second round of studies to determine the viability of dams on the upper Chehalis River. Authority members are proceeding even without knowing whether the Army Corps of Engineers will contribute to the funding.

It’s the right thing to do. As Lewis County commissioner and flood authority member Ron Averill said, “This work is too important to hold up any more.”

“We’re not waiting any longer,” said Grays Harbor County Commissioner and flood authority vice chairwoman Terry Willis. “We’re moving forward.”

Good for them. Authority members have waited for four months to hear from the Corps on whether the federal organization will share the $230,000 cost of the study.

The previous study, Phase IIA, analyzed the topography and geology to determine whether building two dams along the upper Chehalis was possible.

The next study, Phase IIB, will look at cost estimates for the project, along with biological effects on wildlife, especially fisheries and fish spawning areas.

As noted in a recent authority document, those people living in the Chehalis River Basin have worked with a variety of public agencies for the last 70 years to find solutions to the chronic flooding. Given repeated flooding, residents of the watershed live in fear of the next big rainstorm and whether levees will hold and how far the Chehalis will spill over its banks.

The Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority brings 11 jurisdictions together to alleviate that fear by putting flood mitigation measures in place throughout the watershed.

The initial steps have been promising.

For example, the authority is involved in the Corps Twin Cities Project, which proposes 11 miles of setback levees in Centralia and Chehalis and modifications to the Skookumchuck River Dam.

The authority also is paying for a study initiated by the Lewis County Public Utility District to analyze the feasibility of two multipurpose upstream storage facilities on the main stem of the Chehalis River and on the South Fork. The goal of the dams is to provide flood protection, enhance summer instream flows and generate power.

Some concerns have been raised about the first study of two dams along the upper Chehalis. Mark White, the director of natural resources for the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, noted that the state Department of Ecology has raised concerns about some data about a dam’s potential to augment in-stream flow.

“I do have concerns about the data, and that we’re putting the cart before the horse. But if the board wants to move forward, we can move forward,” White said.

And move forward the authority did.

Authority members know the personal toll the floods have taken in Lewis and southern Thurston counties. Boistfort Valley dairy farmer Pete Dykstra has described how 80 years of his family history was wiped out after the devastating flood. “People are nervous and scared; that’s the bottom line,” Dykstra said. “We have to do something, and the only solution is water retention. All the other options do nothing to help the Boistfort Valley.”

We applaud the sense of urgency adopted by the flood authority members. Waiting for four months for a funding decision out of the Corps is unrealistic. Lives have been disrupted and property destroyed. It’s critically important to collect as much information as possible, then move forward with science-backed decisions that will protect those living in the Chehalis River Basin. They’ve suffered enough and waited long enough for governments to react.