Public offers wide-ranging input on proposed dam project

By Alex Brown

The Chronicle

Before beginning a year-long environmental study on a proposed dam on the Chehalis River, state and federal officials are seeking the public’s feedback on what to include in that review. They got plenty of suggestions Wednesday night, ranging from salmon to economic development to orcas to cost.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear this diversity of perspectives, and I think that’s what’s so valuable about the process,” said Andrea McNamara Doyle, director of the state’s Office of the Chehalis Basin. “It gives everybody a chance to identify the aspects of the proposal that are of the most interest and most concern to them.”

The proposal in question is a dam designed to mitigate the effects of flooding in the basin; the Chehalis has suffered its five largest floods in the past 30 years, including the devastating event in 2007 that caused nearly $1 billion in economic losses. Under the proposal, the river would continue to flow as normal, with the dam’s gates being raised during extreme high-water events every decade or so to create a temporary reservoir and provide relief where the river typically spills over its banks downstream.

On Wednesday evening, the Washington State Department of Ecology and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invited members of the public to offer feedback on what should be included in the environmental studies each agency will be commencing soon. The crowd of 75 or so who gathered at Centralia College had many thoughts — and a bit of skepticism. Centralia resident Ron Thomas was one of several who said the project would do nothing for the flooding on other tributaries of the Chehalis, such as the Skookumchuck and the Newaukum Rivers.

“Putting so much money into one project is an unwise decision,” he said. “We’re just protecting Walmart and Home Depot and all these people who were stupid enough to build on the floodplain.”

Thomas was one of more than 15 people who spoke at the event, which featured a 30-minute informational open house with agency members, followed by a session that gave members of the public two minutes of comment time each. Those who were uncomfortable taking the stage were offered the chance to submit written comments or speak privately to a court reporter.

Many who took the microphone to comment talked about their personal experiences with flooding, some praising the dam as a possible solution and others raising concerns.

“I appreciate the efforts that are being made to make progress in this,” said Bethel Church pastor Kyle Rasmussen, noting that flooding has severely impacted the church. “Wouldn’t it be great if my kids could choose to live in Lewis County and not have to worry about raising children in a flooded area?”

Several members of the Chehalis Tribe and the Quinault Indian Nation — both of which are members of the Chehalis Basin Board — were in attendance, and a few took the stage to raise concerns. Rodney Youckton, CEO of Chehalis Tribal Enterprises, questioned if state and local authorities will continue to prioritize habitat restoration projects once the dam is built. He also asked who would bear the cost of long-term maintenance of the project.

“There’s too many questions about everything,” he said. “At this point, from my position, the Chehalis Tribe is opposed to the dam.”

Tanya Eison, a legislative aide with the Quinault Tribe, said members share skepticism about the long-term commitment to habitat goals. The Office of the Chehalis Basin is tasked with seeking both flood mitigation and aquatic species restoration, but Quinault leaders have raised concerns that that political will to continue habitat projects may dry up once the dam is completed.

“A dam could be built relatively quickly and have significant unavoidable impacts on salmon,” Eison said. “Restoration is a long, slow process that will continue on for decades. Funding availability and priorities could change quickly in Olympia. We can’t assume the funding will continue on long enough to deliver on restoration goals or even offset the impacts of the dam.”

Chehalis Tribe member Rachelle Ferguson added concerns that the dam could be harmful to the salmon that run up the Chehalis each year.

“The biggest resource in our economy is fish,” she said. “We rely on that fish. We have fishermen sitting there that do not approve of this dam. … This dam’s not going to do us any good.”

Meanwhile, Matt Matayoshi, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, asked that business growth be included in the study. Projects, like the dam, to address flooding are key to the county’s future, he said.

“We need to address this so that we don’t see catastrophic flooding again,” Matayoshi said. “This continues to be a cloud that hangs over this community as we work to attract new business and industry into Lewis County. … Businesses look at this community, pull up on the Internet that we flood and they think the whole county floods.”

Vince Panesko, though, noted that the dam is projected to only reduce water levels in the Twin Cities by about a foot and a half.

“Let’s get rid of the dam and get some levees to keep us dry,” he said.

Officials said they were pleased to hear the wide swath of questions and comments from the public.

Doyle added that while the scope of the proposed dam is limited to one area, it’s part of a larger effort to help everyone in the basin.