Gregoire: Time for Flood Authority to get along

Gov. Chris Gregoire said she had no choice but to bring down the “hammer” on the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority and convene an independent group to look at potential flood mitigation projects because she felt the Flood Authority had been dragging its feet for years.

In an interview with The Daily World, Gregoire said consensus among the 12-member Flood Authority members seemed an impossible task.

“I had high hopes, but it hasn’t been achieved,” Gregoire said.

Gregoire’s five-member work group has been meeting since August to help determine possible flood mitigation projects for the governor to include in her last capital budget before she leaves office.

The group includes Cosmopolis Mayor Vickie Raines, who chairs the Flood Authority; along with Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, who is vice chair; and attorney J. Vander Stoep, who sometimes represents Pe Ell on the Flood Authority. But the work group also includes Chehalis Tribal Chair David Burnett, who bolted from the Flood Authority over concerns the group was overly focused on dam construction, and Elma resident Jay Gordon, the executive director of the state Dairy Federation.

Gregoire adds, “I called them in to say, ‘You own this. You need to do something. Stop the quibbling, get busy and tell me what you need and if you achieve consensus, I’ll put it in the budget.’”

Raines said members of Gregoire’s work group met with the entire Flood Authority on Thursday seeking response on a list of potential projects. Raines said the Flood Authority approved draft framework for the recommendations at the meeting. Raines said the group also has a goal of funding $9 million worth of projects, which will come from an existing list of about $26 million. The ad-hoc group planned to meet yesterday to narrow that list and plan to meet with Gregoire on Nov. 14 to present its findings, Raines said. “I think we’re almost there,” Raines said. “There weren’t any problems on Thursday. I think the entire Flood Authority knows this is our only chance here.”

Following the devastating 2007 flood, which shut down Interstate 5 at Centralia and Chehalis, Gregoire empowered local governments to tackle flood control along the Chehalis River.

The Corps of Engineers had been working on a flood mitigation project called the Twin Cities Project that would raise the dikes and levees around Centralia and Chehalis. Gregoire said she was not totally on board with that project but saw it as a start, something to build from.

“I told the communities, ‘Look, I’ll take it over, I’ll be the bad guy. I’ll do it. Now that this disaster has happened, we can make it happen.’”

Instead, she listened to the community and helped convene the Flood Authority to take charge.

“They launched in absolute good faith believing they could do it but then as memory of the flood dissipated, they re-trenched and went back to their old ways of thinking and doing business and that’s a sure way to get nothing in the Legislature and to come off the list from the Corps of Engineers,” she said.

In fact, earlier this year, the Corps announced the cost-to-benefit ratio on the Twin Cities Project doesn’t add up to make the project worthwhile and said it planned to scrap the project. It had been the only Congressionally approved project to look at flooding along the Chehalis River.

Gregoire said the state Department of Transportation began looking at other ways to protect I-5, including building flood walls along the freeway. Gregoire said she supported looking at those alternatives because nothing else was happening with either the Corps or the Flood Authority. The idea of flood walls has drawn objections from Flood Authority members, who say it’s pushing the problem of flooding onto the communities.

“I didn’t want to do that because I want a community solution, but if they aren’t going to solve it then I have to look out for I-5,” Gregoire said. “Think about the importance of I-5. It’s the economy from Canada to the tip of California and we shut it down for how many days during the aftermath of the 2007 storm? We can’t let that happen again.”

Gregoire said that although it appears the Flood Authority has gotten better, she saw the group heading back to bad habits. That’s partly why she convened the smaller ad-hoc group.

“I brought the group in two months ago, and I said, ‘You know, I’m leaving. I probably know more than my successor will ever come up to speed on in a quick fashion.’ It is a priority of mine. It has been all along having seen what I saw happen,” she said. “So you get your acts together and I’ll put it in my budget. If you don’t, you’re out.’ …

“And I think probably it took that kind of hammer.”