Memories of the 2007 Chehalis Basin flood remain painfully fresh for Adna farmer Brad Gregory.
In a matter of hours, flood waters inundated his farm and property, located along Bunker Creek Road adjacent to the Chehalis River. In an attempt to get his livestock up to higher ground, Gregory and his family led his 100 sheep into their 1890s era barn.
It was a chaotic scene, one that Gregory and his family hadn’t experienced in their 14 years of living there.
“We got a boat ride from here to the Adna store, then a helicopter ride over to the high school,” said Gregory, 65, adding later: “It was pretty hard. We had an amazing amount of help.”
The flood is known to have been especially deadly for livestock in the upper basin. Gregory’s property was no exception. About three quarters of his sheep died as a result of the December 2007 flood, the survivors having likely lived by keeping their heads above the water by standing atop the carcasses of the deceased.
The memories of the flood remain etched on the water lines of the barn, though things have largely returned back to normal.
In the years after the flood, the Gregory family had a 10-foot high farm pad constructed on their property to park livestock and valuable tractor equipment in preparation for the next “big one.” Standing atop the unkempt, gated structure, Gregory said he hasn’t had to use it much since its construction.
“This would have been the closest (to 2007) and the elevation, it wasn’t even close,” Gregory said of the January flooding in the Chehalis River Basin.
But for many of the two dozen or so farm pads — also known as critter pads — that were built in the Chehalis Basin following the 2007 flood, last month’s flooding served as the first real test to see how the structures could reduce the loss of livestock and valuable items, said Kelly Verd, special projects coordinator with the Lewis County Conservation District.
So far, according to feedback, the pads appear to be working.
“We have had a couple people who want to expand them because once they use them, they think, ‘hmm, I have some equipment that I would like up there too,’’' Verd said.
The Lewis County Conservation District and the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority have played a pivotal role in linking property owners and farmers to funding sources to build farm pads, including Gregory’s, which was funded through a federal Natural Resources Conservation Service grant. Most of the pads were constructed in the immediate wake of 2007, Verd said.
“I think we’ve become a model across the nation by doing these farm pads,” said Edna Fund, vice president of the flood authority and also the daughter of a farmer. “One farm pad is not like another one.”
Because of basinwide partnerships, Fund said, organizations and governments have been able to work together to construct these structures in many of the counties that lie within the Chehalis Basin, though mostly in Lewis County.
They’re also effective in that they’re tailor-made to the specifications and needs of each landowner.
“These not only protect property, but they protect communities and they ensure resilience and that people will be able to get back to work,” said Scott Boettcher, a staff member with the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority. “They’re kind of super simple, but we didn’t have them before and now we do. I look at them as a good example of living with floods.”
About 80 to 90% of herds impacted by flood water drowned during the 2007 flooding, Boettcher said. It was devastating not only financially, but emotionally for a lot of farmers and agricultural workers.
Boettcher said the structure of a farm pad — compact, structurally-sound earth mounds covered in grass and gated — is “elegant in its simplicity” and gives farmers a “sense of relief so they could sleep at night.”
“They have proven to be very effective. I mean, we haven’t had an ‘07 event since ‘07,” Boettcher said.
He’s heard reports that property owners within the Newaukum River subbasin — which saw record-breaking flooding in January — found success in utilizing their pads this time around.
The fiscal return on the structures has also been noteworthy, Boettcher said. The basin’s 25 or so total pads were built with approximately $600,000 in funding and have mitigated damage or loss about 14 times that.
“If it works for somebody’s farm, I think it’s a great idea,” said Michelle Schilter, an Adna cattle farmer who maintains about 300 dairy cows.
Schilter said she doesn’t have a pad, but recently purchased about 100 acres of hillside land adjacent to her property so that they can use it to run cattle up the hillside.
“It was just life changing,” she said of the 2007 flood. “We had water in our house, we had water in the dairy. I had three small kids. It was just catastrophic. We were lucky that we didn’t lose the animals like a lot of farmers did in the area, but we did lose a lot of feed.”
The leadup to last month’s flooding showed that many rivers in the Chehalis Basin were due to reach or surpass historic flooding stages, though weather proved more favorable and allowed many communities to “dodge the bullet” of a similar 2007 flood, many county and city officials have said.
Schilter said there definitely was some post-traumatic stress in the community as farmers began moving their livestock, equipment and tractors to higher grounds last month. Boettcher said there have been no reports of loss of livestock from flooding in January.
Though water began covering parts of Bunker Creek Road during this last flood, Gregory, owner of Black Sheep Creamery, said his family wasn’t too worried about the risk of flooding. The only loss this time around was some damp feed, which the sheep still took to.
“It probably got higher than we thought it would,” he said. “This was higher than ‘09 for us.”
At least once a year, Gregory said, he’ll lead his sheep up to the farm pad with a bucket of grain to help pasture grass. Standing atop the structure, Gregory notes how it's about 4 or 5 feet higher than where ‘07 flood waters stood.
Herding them up the incline is nothing like pulling teeth, he said. It’s rather simple.
It’s just another tool in the box — just another safety net.
Just in case.