With $70 million allocated by the state Legislature, regional partners still can’t agree on how to divide funds for flood reduction and aquatic species restoration in the Chehalis River Basin.
The state-level Chehalis Basin Board for many weeks has been refining a 2021-23 spending plan, which currently includes funding for final-draft environmental impact statements for a flood retention dam and project funding for aquatic species habitat restoration. Aquatic species habitat restoration projects and flood damage reduction projects will each receive $31.5 million in funding through the budget.
During a July 1 meeting, the board had the option to pass such a budget but was unable to come to a complete consensus. Tyson Johnston, a board member representing the Quinault Indian Tribe, said the tribe isn’t comfortable funding projects that hadn’t received approval through state and federal environment reviews, referring to studies being conducted on the proposed flood mitigation dam.
“For the Tribe, the Quinault in particular, we are not in a position to where we feel comfortable supporting a budget that approves spending that’s not required under SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) or NEPA’s (National Environmental Policy Act) analytical framework … Others, in our opinion, also represent an estimate that predetermines the dam as the preferred alternative or close on consideration for other alternatives that can come forward,” Johnston said.
Those reviews have shown that a dam, slated for the upper Chehalis River near Pe Ell, would be harmful to recovering salmon species and species that survive on them, including orcas. The federal review of the dam showed its construction would lead to substantial impact of fish habitats, and the project’s five-year construction could lead to a population decrease for the spring-run Chinook salmon.
But some believe the initial reaction to the draft environmental impact statements thus far has been premature. Chehalis Basin Board Member J. Vander Stoep said the dire predictions have been based on narrow analysis of only a couple river reaches, and that the dam’s impact is relatively minimal compared to the long-term predicted impacts of climate change.
The draft environmental impact statements also haven’t considered any habitat mitigation efforts yet that would help reduce fish death by preserving habitat. If constructed, the flood-retention dam, along with reinforced levees downstream, would help preserve 1,400 valuable structures throughout the basin during 100-year floods, as well as key transportation routes, according to previous studies.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Vander Stoep said, describing the dam. “It doesn’t say we won’t have any flooding anymore, but it turns a catastrophic flood into just a big flood.”
The Quinault Indian Tribe hasn’t backed the construction of the dam, citing cultural and environmental concerns.
Chehalis Basin Board Chair Vickie Raines suggested Johnston and the Tribe bring forward a spending breakdown that was more in line with what they had in mind. At a separate flood authority meeting a couple weeks later, Raines said the Tribe’s “concerns weren’t really clear. They just wanted to limit the amount that the spending was, even well below what we were willing to take it to, which was $21.1 million.”
“It’s frustrating. I want to make sure that everyone gets their questions answered, but it’s hard to do that when you’re not sure what the questions are,” Raines said.
The Office of the Chehalis Basin (OCB) and its board are under a tightening deadline to pass a spending plan as the timetables for starting these projects narrow, potentially resulting in additional costs, and as warmer summers continue to negatively impact cool waters and habitat critical for fish survival.
With the board fully focused on passing a budget, it’s less focused on other critical tasks.
With discussions between the board and the Tribe stalled, it’s unlikely an August meeting will be held. The earliest a budget might be adopted is in September.
Vander Stoep told The Chronicle he’s hopeful they’ll have a budget passed in September. A budget amended by the Tribe hasn’t come to the board yet, he said.
“Whether your main focus is on the fish side, or your main focus is on the flood side, everybody has a big stake in this process,” Vander Stoep said.
The biennium budget currently on the table is divided into three sections, with $62.3 million divided in half between aquatic species habitat restoration and flood reduction projects. A sum of $3.8 million in the budget has been earmarked for a variety of projects, including a Skookumchuck dam analysis, erosion management, a floodplain acquisition program and land use, and continued community outreach.
The budget saw some minor changes between June and July. According to an outline, about $10.5 million was taken from the flood retention facility and airport study work in order to establish a “flood damage reduction unobligated reserve” in an attempt at finding a compromise, Vander Stoep said. The dam and levee will still receive roughly $9.6 million in funding this cycle.
The budget also outlines that the board is looking to utilize part of a $2.5 million allocation to support a group to develop and present alternatives to a flood-retention dam and airport levee no later than June 2022. Part of that $2.5 million will also fund floodplain mapping and modeling for a dam.
This budget is also important to projects in the lower Chehalis Basin. Delay of the budget could affect a $4 million in funding to build a west segment levee that would connect to the valuable North Shore Levee. The start of that project is contingent upon secured funds.
“Within their budget there is an allocation of $4 million for the west segment in Hoquiam … The delay will impact the start of that project, but not the North Shore Levee that spans Aberdeen and Hoquiam,” Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay told The Daily World.
The budget delay might also impact three pump stations slated for construction in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, The Daily World reported.
The delay mirrors what happened earlier this year, when the Chehalis Basin Board was supposed to make a recommendation to the state regarding the dam. Back then, OCB Director Andrea McNamara Doyle acknowledged frustrations arising from the drawn-out process.
Vander Stoep echoed the sentiment this month: “I thought we were going to be there in the June meeting, and turned out we didn’t have six votes. And then we met again in July and we never took a vote, but it was obvious we weren’t there.”