House passes Chehalis Basin funding bill

By Colton Dodgson

The Chronicle

On Sunday, the Washington State Legislature voted 95-to-1 in favor of HB-1154.

J. Vander Stoep, a member of the Chehalis Basin Board, said it was a moment “12 years” in the making.

“We can’t be celebrating hard, yet,” Vander Stoep said. “It’s obviously off to a great start with such a strong vote in the house.”

HB-1154, if passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, would provide the Chehalis Basin with $700 million dollars over the next 14 years for flood prevention and wildlife restoration.

At the conclusion of the 14 years, $350 million dollars will have been dedicated to flood prevention and wildlife restoration, respectively. Lewis County Commissioner and Chehalis Basin board member Edna Fund added that the money wouldn’t have to be even over each biennium — two-year period — as long as water-retention efforts and habitat preservation ultimately received the same amount of money at the conclusion of the 14 years.

“I think (the even split) was a great negotiative item to be had,” Fund said. “So that, it wasn’t every year, ‘Oh, did you get this much, did you get this much,’ it is, we vow that we will be spending half (on wildlife) and half (on floods) by the end of the bienniums. That was another great moment.”

The interest of the efforts were multifarious, with “generally” — according to Vander Stoep — the local governments and the local community groups in the Chehalis Basin pushing for preventative flood measures, while “environmental interests and tribal interests” were concerned about the welfare of the area’s wildlife.

“After the 2007 flood, a lot of people in our communities, all over the (Chehalis) Basin, but Lewis County as well as Grays Harbor and Southern Thurston were very focused on looking to see if there was a way to avoid these occasional catastrophic floods, to reduce their impact, anyway,” Vander Stoep said. “Water retention pretty quickly became obvious as one major part of a solution.”

The two groups were at odds for “quite a few years,” according to Vander Stoep.

“I’ll say in shorthand, the fish people were fighting the flood people,” Vander Stoep said. “Only when we came to realize — a lot of people came to realize — that fighting meant we aren’t going to have a solution.”

Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, sponsored the bill. Vander Stoep and Fund both add that he deserves a great deal of credit for the support it has received at the legislative level.

“I think all the people that have volunteered and all the people working on this for a long time are going to find the right solution for us and our community,” DeBolt said. “My part was to help find a way to pay for it and I think I’ve accomplished that. Now it’s time to get moving, get (preventative flood measures) built, get the fish habitat done and keep these partnerships moving.”

According to DeBolt, projects in the Chehalis Basin to help with flood damage reduction have been funded since 2007. He adds that “a couple hundred million,” has been spent on projects in Pe Ell, Morton and other places in Lewis County.

Still, he adds that while those projects are already being completed, a comprehensive plan is still needed.

“Part of that plan not only has to be the retention of the water, but the restoration of the basin for fish and for agriculture,” DeBolt said. “The Chehalis Basin flood workgroup has been just amazing, they’ve gotten a lot done.”

With representatives Kelly Chambers (R-Puyallup) and Debra Entenman (D-Kent) excused from Sunday’s vote, 96 representatives voted on the bill. Only Rep. Mike Pellicciotti (D-Federal Way) voted against it.

The vote sparked a spirited reaction from Fund, Commissioner Vickie Raines of Grays Harbor County’s Board of Commissioners and some of the other attendees in Olympia from the Office of Chehalis Basin, as well as the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, reported on social media that the “rambunctious” group were gaveled — a signal to settle down ­— after their short-lived celebration.

“I’m sure (we will) be there in the gallery (for the senate vote),” Fund said. “But I don’t think we’ll clap this time. They didn’t gavel us until after we were done clapping, so I appreciated that.”

Fund views the passing of the bill as a significant achievement for Rep. DeBolt. He’s announced he will not seek re-election and is retiring in Jan. 2021.

“This man has put in a lot of years in doing this,” Fund said of DeBolt. “For him to leave the house, but pass this legislation, leaves quite a legacy for him.”

For DeBolt, it’s the solution that he promised he would help find.

“As somebody who’s been part of this community for all these years, they’ve been so gracious to have me as their representative for all these years,” DeBolt said. “I’ve been humbled to be able to do this. To be able to find and get something passed that gives us the ability to leverage federal funds and to get state funds, it’s nice.

“I’m counting on the people who take my place to finish this off, but it feels good and I’m glad that I was able to be in this position in life to do this.”