Life in Bay Center on Willapa Bay

Living in a maritime fishing village in Southwest Washington state on Willapa Bay

Funding, feuding put flood project on hold

Funding, feuding put flood project on hold – article, Seattle Times, Dec 5, 2007

When Washington lawmakers in 2003 approved an ambitious plan — the “nickel gas tax” package — to repair state highways, tucked inside was $30 million to help corral the Chehalis River.

For years, it has slipped its banks, swamping surrounding homes and businesses.

And on Monday, its muddy floodwaters again created havoc, this time flooding Interstate 5 and causing the third such freeway closure in 17 years.

“I was almost crying yesterday. I felt so bad,” said state Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, who championed the “nickel gas tax” funding for the Chehalis River project. “This is such an obvious thing that needs to be done. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t get folks headed in the right direction.”

That the project never got built is a result of a lack of consensus on what needs to be done. Funding also has hamstrung efforts.

Congress has yet to approve some $70 million in federal funds, which would be administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Meanwhile, the cities of Chehalis and Centralia have struggled to agree on needed flood controls.

Without a consensus, state transportation officials have taken the $30 million in gas-taxes and applied it elsewhere.

Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said there had been no money nor the necessary construction authority to complete the Chehalis project. Just recently the corps, however, got the authority. But it still needs the funding.

Complicating matters, she said, is that Lewis County sent a letter last year asking the corps to end its study of the flooding problems because of the dispute over what should be done. She said the corps met last month with the county to discuss reconsidering the project.

County Commissioner Ron Averill, who was not on the commission when the letter was sent, said the letter has since been rescinded.

The problem, Averill said, is that the corps planned a series of dikes that would require the local communities to maintain them. The cities of Chehalis and Centralia said the work might protect Interstate 5 but it wasn’t enough to help protect the cities from flooding so they didn’t want to assume the maintenance costs.

Without the cities’ support, the county withdrew its support of the corps study. Since then, the Governor’s Office has asked the county to reconsider the project.

“An open I-5 is vital to the economy,” Averill said. “It should be a high priority.”

The corps project would include new levees and walls, ranging from 3 to more than 10 feet tall, said Laura Orr, project manager for the corps. The Skookumchuck Dam would be expanded to better regulate stormwater.

When heavy rains and melting snow force the Chehalis River over its banks, the rising surge backs up water into the Skookumchuck River and China Creek. “Everything meets at that one area and there’s only so much room,” Orr said. “It makes it like a bath tub. It keeps rising and eventually it comes over I-5.”

Rob Fuller, a Chehalis city councilman and local grocer, said the two cities and the county can’t agree on what should be done. “We’re fighting over money and turf battles,” he said. “The three entities have to get together and prioritize the projects.”

He said local officials wanted to dredge the river but the corps balked. And some locals don’t think the corps’ favored option, the dikes, will work.

The state has said the flood-control project is needed to protect area roads, communities and I-5, which was closed by high water in 1990 and again in 1996.

“The problem has been the twin cities and the county have not been able to come together for a plan that fits all their needs,” said former Lewis County state legislator Neil Amondson. “It’s a troubling thing for citizens. There’s a lot of handwringing, but no one comes to a decision.”

Even if the I-5 project had been funded, it still might not have prevented what happened Monday because it wasn’t even supposed to go out to bid until this year.

“I’ve seen a lot of bickering between the towns,” said grocer Fuller, whose business is being hammered by the I-5 closure. “I’m hoping this event will open some eyes, but it’s a sad way to do it.”

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