County drops one flooding project, scales back on another one

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners voted this week to discontinue their sponsorship of a potential $1 million flood plain restoration project on the Satsop River, citing liability issues if the river were to go out of control if the rocky rip rap is removed along the riverbank.

Although the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority recommended the project and more than $1 million in state funds has been allocated for it, County Engineer Russ Esses says that the county shouldn’t risk being a part of the project.

At the same time, the county commissioners also changed their priorities in dealing with flooding issues along Wishkah Road, located outside the city limits of Aberdeen. At one point, the county was looking at installing a sheet pile wall to deal with flooding. However, a consultant’s report determined that design and construction of such flooding protection would cost in excess of $5.5 million. But the state was only providing $2.642 million to work on the project over the next two years. This was also a project sponsored by the Flood Authority.

Esses says the county’s focus should, at this point, be to raise portions of Wishkah Road higher so that emergency vehicles get through during most flooding events.

All of the county’s decisions were also based on consultant reports finished within the past few weeks.

A rocky barrier was established on a good portion of the banks of the Chehalis River decades ago. A consultant report by Watershed Science & Engineering for the county looked to see what would happen if some of those large rocks were removed, thinking that the river would be allowed to meander more and old gravel pits that are now ponds owned by the state Department of Fish & Wildlife would help reduce flooding in the area.

Instead, the report found that bank erosion downstream “would most likely increase if the (rock) revetment is removed. … This reach of the river behaves much like a fire hose, in that it meanders freely downstream of the point it is held in place. The further up the reach the river is held in place, the longer the uncontrolled section becomes and the larger the potential for meandering.”

Former county commissioner Terry Willis, who lives along the banks of the Satsop River, says she’s not giving up on the restoration project. Willis says that she supports the county’s decision not to remove the rip rap given the consultant’s report. But she says there are still other options, including removing fill dirt at the site so that if the river goes over its banks, it has somewhere else to go than in landowner’s properties. She notes that the drinking water well for the Port of Grays Harbor’s Satsop Business Park is in danger.

“While I’m saddened by the fact the county feels the need to step away from the sponsor and the lead from this, I do feel that another agency may step forward and it may be more appropriate for them to work on this particular project,” Willis told the commissioners on Monday. “This project will not go away. … We’ll continue to work on this with landowners and those with a vested interest in this.”

Wishkah Road home owner Frank Kirsch says he’s also disappointed that the county has changed its priorities in fixing Wishkah Road. Kirsch says the county should be focusing first on the flooding issues, not just fixing the road. He says that there’s “a lot of political muscle” behind the project in the state Legislature and feels local legislators may be able to come up with the extra $2.9 million needed to do the project. Kirsch noted the county’s consultant AMEC of Bothell recommended the sheet pile wall alternative rather than raising the road.

County Commissioner Wes Cormier says if the money turns up, the project is still on its list of fixes for that area. However, elevating the road costs just $500,000 — easily within the $2.6 million budget. Plus, Cormier says that only nine homeowners benefit from the sheet pile wall, including Kirsch. He wonders if it may be cheaper for all involved to just raise those homes. County Commissioner Frank Gordon noted one of the homeowners already is elevating their home in that area.

“Maybe if we don’t use all of the money for our projects, that money can go back to the Flood Authority and be used to help cost overruns on other projects, such as saving the jobs at Mary’s River Lumber in Montesano,” Cormier said.