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Flood authority committed to basin-wide solution

Editor’s Note: The Vidette invited members of the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority to respond to Billy Frank’s column.

Dear Editor;

As members of the Governor’s Chehalis Basin Work Group, we write these thoughts following the recent column from Billy Frank Jr., Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, about flood mitigation in the Chehalis Basin. We begin by expressing our respect for Mr. Frank and acknowledging the importance to the Chehalis Basin of both the fish and the Quinault Indian Nation.

We agree with most of Mr. Frank’s views, especially his conclusion that we “need to address flooding issues while also meeting the needs of the natural resources and everyone in the Chehalis basin whose culture, food and livelihoods depend on those resources.”

That is precisely our mission. We are trying to develop a strategy that reduces the impact of catastrophic flood damage in the Basin while enhancing aquatic resources like salmon and steelhead.

This year, in addition to assessing the feasibility of a dam, local projects will be constructed to reduce some of the damage from floods, the first ever aquatics species enhancement plan for the Basin will be developed, and other alternatives will be explored to prevent Interstate-5 from flooding and reduce damage to communities throughout the Basin.

Governor Gregoire formed this Work Group and asked us to serve alongside David Burnett (Chair of the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation), Jay Gordon (Grays Harbor Dairy Farmer and President of the Washington State Dairy Federation) and a member of her staff. Governor Inslee asked us to continue our work to come up with a plan addressing both flooding and the fish.

For more than 100 years, government officials have talked about Chehalis Basin flood relief and about enhancing salmon and steelhead.

But, little has been accomplished on either front. The fishery has declined and flooding is getting worse. Now, we believe there is an opportunity to make progress on both fronts. If we fail now, we fear that another long period will follow with little progress made toward either goal.

We also agree with Mr. Frank that land use and development practices have contributed to increased flood damage in the past. But that is no longer the case.

The Chehalis Alternatives report, published last year by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, gathered information from many sources and evaluated a wide array of potential contributors to flood damage, including land use policies.

The fact is that today in the Chehalis Basin, local governments abide by federal and state standards that prohibit new development in the floodway and highly restrict it in the floodplain. Part of our Work Group’s strategy this year is to look deeper into land management, and see if there are other ways local governments can reduce the risk of flood damage.

We are participating, with multiple state agencies and technical experts in an extensive evaluation of water retention in the upper Chehalis. It is important to note that no decisions relating to water retention have yet been made and no retention facility proposed. This evaluation was mandated by the State Legislature as part of a $28 million package of fish and flood related work in the Basin.

The Quinault Indian Nation has been invited to participate in the technical and policy discussions. We were fortunate to have their representatives at our two policy workshops and several of the technical forums. Their greater participation is most welcome.

Today, there are two big problems in the upper Chehalis River. First, every year during the summer, more than 30 miles of the river habitat becomes hot, with low flows and low oxygen, which in 2009, resulted in a massive fish kill. Because of this condition, the state has created a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for temperature, and hopes there will be restoration efforts to help meet that standard.

Second, flood damage in the Basin is increasing because the volume of flood water during high flood events is increasing. In 81 years of gathering data, the highest five peak Chehalis River flows at Grand Mound have occurred in the last 26 years. Meteorologists predict that climate change may make summer flows lower and winter highs worse.

Water storage holds the potential to address both problems. This is the same opportunity that has brought the Yakima Nation to conclude that new water storage in the Yakima Basin could benefit both fish and farmers. This dual purpose may be achieved in the Chehalis by a dam with a permanent reservoir. Another option being examined is a run-of-the-river dam. Such a dam would have no permanent reservoir. It would have a gate that stayed open throughout the year and did not touch the river in its normal flow. The gate would only be closed temporarily when needed to hold back large flood flows.

Mr. Frank points to the removal of the Elwha dams as a caution to us. We take that caution and can assure him that no structure that will block salmon or steelhead is being considered on the Chehalis. We have learned that design and engineering of dams has radically changed since the Elwha dams were built. If a water retention structure is built on the Chehalis, it must be designed with the needs of the fish in the forefront.

We are striving to develop a Basin-wide strategy that will enhance the fishery and reduce flood damage for all of the communities in the Basin. We have not determined whether a water retention structure makes sense as part of this strategy. What we can say with certainty is that one will only be proposed if it can be consistent with a strategy that achieves both goals: protecting our communities and enhancing our aquatic resources.

We hope others will join in the work as we develop our recommendations to the Governor and legislature by November 2014. The involvement of others will help ensure the best technical work is done during our year-long process and this technical work creates the foundation for a comprehensive approach for the future of the Chehalis Basin. We know actions of the past have created current problems. We hope we can come together with renewed commitment and trust amongst all interests.

Sincerely,

Vickie Raines, Mayor

Cosmopolis, Governor’s Chehalis Basin Work Group, Chair Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority

Karen Valenzuela, Thurston County Commissioner, Governor’s Chehalis Basin Work Group, and Vice-Chair Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority

J. Vander Stoep, Private Attorney, Governor’s Chehalis Basin Work Group, Pe Ell Alternate to the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority

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