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Legislature’s failure to pass capital budget stalls flood projects

Chehalis Basin Flood Authority members were scratching their heads Thursday during their meeting in Montesano, trying to figure out why the Legislature was unable to pass a new capital budget, geared mainly toward construction projects around the state.

Flood Authority members were banking on a potential $5.2 million for flood projects in Cosmopolis, Wishkah and Lewis County. And state Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said the money would have been there — had his colleagues had their act together and actually passed the budget. Instead, the session adjourned without any approved budget geared for construction projects.

“I’m told it’s the first time in 20 years that the capital budget wasn’t approved, Blake said. “It was just really unusual.”

Usually, the budget whizzes through with bipartisan and nearly unanimous support. Not this year, where Blake said a dispute broke out over whether the state should pay for a new building for the Washington State Patrol. That was the cherry on top of a debate over several uses of the fund in disagreements between the Democrats in the House and the Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate made up of Republicans and a couple conservative Democrats.

It’s a bitter pill for Wishkah resident Frank Kirsch to swallow. Kirsch has been fighting for the funding to fix a flooding issue just outside the city limits of Aberdeen on Wishkah Road. The road becomes impassable during strong rainy spells and nearby homes also are flooded.

Last year, the state Legislature allocated nearly $2 million for the project.

Then, in August, Kirsch gave his support to reduce the guaranteed money to give it to a project in Montesano, which shores up flood protections around the city’s wastewater treatment plant and nearby Mary’s River Lumber Mill.

Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines also agreed to reduce $1.5 million allocated to fix Mill Creek Dam in Cosmopolis. The dam had breached some years before and Raines has been searching high and low for some way to get the funds to fix it. Once complete, it’ll prevent flooding along the creek that affects local neighborhoods.

The thought was there were three projects that had funding allocated — but not enough to fund all three of them. Since the Montesano project was ready to go, the funding was shifted to that one.

Design and engineering work has continued on fixing the Wishkah and Cosmopolis projects. And the $5.2 million in the capital budget was supposed to go to those projects, along with airport levee improvements near Centralia and Chehalis, according to Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund.

Without an approved capital budget, though, those funds never emerged. “It’s disappointing, I’ll tell you that,” Kirsch said.

“Hopefully, the designs and engineering will all be done so we can make sure the funding is there,” Blake said.

“We’re just going to move forward, get the designs done and hopefully the money will be there next year,” Raines said.

Aberdeen City Councilwoman Kathi Hoder says she’s tired of the delays over the Wishkah Road project, in particular.

“It needs to be finished,” Hoder said during the Flood Authority meeting. “Those people suffer terribly. God forbid somebody has a medical emergency there. It may not be in my city, but it’s in my county and I’m very protective of them.”

Authority members may be mourning the loss of their funding, but they still have funding in other areas. Authority facilitator Jim Kramer told the group that some funds had been set aside last year that still needs to be spent looking at smaller flood retention projects to determine what benefits could be had if they were put in place.

Staff and Flood Authority members are working on criteria to narrow down an assortment of projects so they can figure out the best projects to work on. Several projects in Lewis County ranked the highest to improve drainage on streets and overflow areas in the first attempts to work on the list. But restoring an old channel of the Chehalis River outside Montesano also ranked high. Mayor Ken Estes noted that the channel is aiming the river “like a fire hose” right at the banks of Mary’s River lumber mill, which is set to get bank improvements this summer.

Other restoration projects on Fry Creek for Aberdeen, a subdivision flooding issue for Oakville and replacing a wastewater treatment outflow pipe for the city of Elma were also on the list.

Flood Authority members also discussed funding options for the various flood and rain gauges they use to set up their early warning system at Members decided to apply for grant funding from the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains some of the gauges.

“I’m concerned that we’re going to lose these gauges,” Estes said. “Maybe the Flood Authority should take over all the gauges and they pay us to maintain them. I’m concerned the feds won’t have the funding, then state won’t have funding, then the counties won’t have the funding and then there’s no one that will have the money to fund them.”

At the end of the day, Flood Authority members toured the construction project currently happening at Montesano’s wastewater treatment plant, where workers are driving in a vinyl wall into the ground to protect the plant from flood waters. During the 2007 storm, the city’s sewage lagoons were just inches away from flowing into the Chehalis River. Now, Estes says the wall will protect the plant six inches higher than a 500-year flooding event.