Controversial cooperative may dissolve

MONTESANO — Two years after its controversial formation, the Watershed Cooperative may dissolve, going out in a quietly compared to the roar it created when Grays Harbor County, Thurston County and the Chehalis Tribe teamed up to create it.

The Watershed Cooperative convened after the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation left the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, frustrated over what they said were too many studies and not enough cooperation. There were hopes that the cities would join the new group within an advisory group and it would offer a serious alternative competing with the Flood Authority for state funding.

Instead, the group has continued to meet and provide an outlet for the tribe to work on watershed issues and improve the barriers for the Sickman Ford Bridge outside of Oakville, which restricts water access for the Chehalis River.

Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, who sits as vice chair of the Flood Authority and is one of the three members of the Watershed Cooperative, said that the cooperative is looking to dissolve.

For one thing, Gov. Chris Gregorie crafted a five-member Chehalis Basin working group, which includes Valenzuela and Chehalis Tribal Chairman David Burnett, which Valenzuela points out, has allowed much better communication with the tribe than in the past. Other members are Elma resident Jay Gordon, the executive director of the state Dairy Federation, attorney J. Vander Stoep, who sometimes represents Pe Ell on the Flood Authority, and Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines, who chairs the Flood Authority.

“When the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation left the Flood Authority, we needed an outlet to make sure they stayed in communication,” Valenzuela said. “They’re a big part of the basin.”

Then, when Gregoire and legislators authorized $5 million in spending for on-the-ground flood mitigation projects, the Chehalis tribe was put into the mix as having to authorize the projects in conjunction with the Flood Authority.

Raines said it was a good tactic that also increased communication between the two entities.

Valenzuela said that Gov. Jay Inslee is meeting with Gregoire’s work group on April 4. If Inslee keeps a similar work group in place, which includes the Chehalis tribe, Valenzuela said that the Watershed Cooperative will no longer be needed.

The cooperative meets again in May.

Grays Harbor Commissioner Wes Cormier says he thinks it a good idea to just let the cooperative go away. Besides the Flood Authority, there are other groups that also support watershed planning along the Chehals River, including the Chehalis Basin Partnership, which also includes officials from Lewis, Mason and Grays Harbor counties.

“I’m not sure it’s doing any good any more,” Cormier said, noting he attended the cooperative’s most recent meeting. “We’d be smart if we just disband the group. It’s a decision I’d definitely support.”

When the Watershed Cooperative was formed in April of 2011, there was talk of creating multi-county flood districts and the Flood Authority eventually dissolving. Valenzuela and then-Grays Harbor County commissioner Terry Willis worked with the Chehalis tribe to create the new group as a way to ensure that a group survived in case the state needed a body to allocate funds to and as a way to ensure the Chehalis tribe stayed involved, they said at the time.

But city officials on the Flood Authority decried the group because they said it was crafted in secret and without their input. Many cities on the Harbor and in Lewis County approved resolutions condemning the group.

And Willis, who was chair of the Flood Authority at the time, was ousted from her position and replaced with Raines.

Some members of the Flood Authority believe the creation of the cooperative unified the other members of the Flood Authority. The Flood Authority has survived and has increased its membership.