Engineers, scientists and residents along three Spokane County streams have been working since last February’s floods on plans to limit damage from future high water.
But with more flood damage on New Year’s Day, some politicians and residents whose land is eroding are calling for quick-fixes that experts say are unsightly, unnatural, may not last and could cause more severe flooding downstream.
On Tuesday, county commissioners chastised staff for doing little to prevent floods after February’s high water. State agencies were criticized for tying up flood-control projects in red-tape, when, in fact, the county has not applied for any permits.
Commissioners directed engineers to do something fast to prevent future flood damage along Chester Creek in the Spokane Valley. Commissioner Phil Harris told staff to “bend the law” if necessary to get the work done.
Most likely the job will require dredging the seasonal stream and clearing brush from its banks, said Public Works Director Dennis Scott.
That work is prescribed in a nearly completed Chester Creek flood control plan, but so are more environmentally sensitive measures such as protecting wetlands where flood waters can safely percolate into the ground. County officials say they intend to implement the entire plan, eventually.
“That’s what they (local governments) always say, and then they don’t always get to it” because money falls short or interest subsides, said Carmen Andonaegui of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners scolded their own parks staff members for not doing more to prevent a repeat of the February flood that damaged Hangman Valley Golf Course south of Spokane. Damage was severe during 16 hours on Jan. 1, when Latah Creek ran at the highest level ever recorded.
County engineers have been working with a “stream team” of state and local scientists on a plan to use “bio-engineering” - a mix of plants and creative landscaping - to control erosion.
But on Tuesday, golf manager Mike Kingsley promised Commissioner Kate McCaslin that he’d “pour some rip-rap down the bank” at the golf course.
Rip-rap is the term for boulders used to hold unstable banks in place.
Stream-team members say it often fails and does nothing to restore fish and wildlife habitat lost to erosion. Worse, rip-rap often speeds up the stream current, causing more severe damage downstream.
On Friday, state regulators convinced county staff members to use rip-rap only within 30 feet of the course’s three bridges, Kingsley said.
“We’ll use bio-engineering everywhere else,” he said, adding that the work probably will be done this spring, perhaps with federal disaster relief money.
Herbert Smith is tired of waiting for the government to do something about flooding on Dragoon Creek. Smith said he’s lost more soil from his 125 acres in the last year than in the previous 20. The most recent flood threatened his septic system.
“I offered to purchase rock (for rip-rap) but was told I couldn’t do it,” Smith said. “The (Spokane County Conservation District) came up with a plan using root wads, but it takes many, many permits.”
Streamlining the process
Smith’s impatience is “understandable,” said the conservation district’s Monica Lundgren, head of the Dragoon Creek project.
Lundgren said the state has provided $40,000 for showcase flood-control projects along the creek, a tributary to the Little Spokane River.
A citizens committee decided to spend $15,000 to sculpt Smith’s 150 feet of stream bank. Crews will bury tree stumps at the water’s edge and plant willows to hold the soil in place.
Lundgren said the work will begin by spring. It’s lucky that it wasn’t done sooner, she said, because the willows wouldn’t have taken root and “we might have lost everything” during the New Year’s Day flood.
Smith’s complaint about the lengthy permit process is a common one. In most cases, five state, federal and county agencies must approve any instream work.
In recent years, those agencies have streamlined the permit process. Still, it takes two weeks to six months to get permission for a flood-control project, Lundgren said.
The state departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife were blamed Tuesday, when county commissioners wanted to know why more hadn’t been done to prevent flooding along Latah and Chester creeks. County staff members said they were tangled in red tape.
But Andonaegui said the wildlife department hasn’t yet been asked for the only permit needed for the Chester Creek work, which is too small for other agencies to regulate. Because it’s considered an emergency, permission could be granted in 24 hours, instead of two weeks, said Andonaegui.
And while the state would prefer not to see Chester Creek gutted, it probably wouldn’t deny the permit because the section of stream that needs work doesn’t support fish, Andonaegui said.
At the Hangman Valley Golf Course, it was the county’s own shortage of money for planning that slowed things down, said the Department of Ecology’s Doug Pineo, a member of the Latah stream team.
“They had all summer and fall. They could easily have had a project in place” before January’s floods, Pineo said.
Watching soil wash away
Two landowners about a quarter-mile downstream from the golf course got the permits they needed to start a bio-engineered project between floods.
Richard Stucky said he lost “several thousand cubic feet of soil, some 100-year-old pines and fencing” last February.
During the summer, he and a neighbor worked with the conservation district and the state Natural Resources Conservation District to sculpt the banks and install biodegradable netting to hold back the soil. But the final and most important step - planting saplings and other native plants - was put on hold until spring.
Without the plants to hold the soil, high water on New Year’s Day caused severe erosion on the neighbor’s land. But there was little damage to the seven acres where Stucky raises alpacas.
“If the project had not been there, there’s no doubt but that our barn would be gone,” said Stucky.
Stucky said the project was expected to cost $160,000, including the plants that haven’t been purchased. He and his neighbor each agreed to pay $20,000, with the state covering $140,000 and using the work as a show-case project.
It will cost more now, because of the necessary repairs.
Stucky sees bio-engineering as an earth-friendly way to control erosion. He hopes trout will return to Chester Creek if enough landowners plant trees and shrubs along its banks.
“A big pile of rock isn’t going to draw them,” he said.
Thursday night, at a meeting of the Latah stream team, farmer Jack Kampa shared a more disturbing view of the future.
Kampa worries that a trailer court across the river will use federal disaster relief money to build a flood wall, deflecting the current toward his land. He’s already lost a good chunk of the ground his grandfather and father plowed before him.
He worries nervous landowners will line more of the bank with rocks, causing the river to run even faster and rise still higher than it already does. That, he said, would cause still more landowners to take the same drastic steps.
“We’re going to get into rip-rap wars,” he said. “You dump all that stuff in the river and it (the flooding) is just going to move downstream.”
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