Although the federal government has admitted it could have done more to prevent June flooding of the dam-controlled Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry, a county request for emergency relief funds has been denied.
County officials also say they are being rebuffed in their quest to lower the official flood stage level to help prevent future damage.
“It’s kind of a double-whammy,” said Bob Graham, Boundary County’s emergency services coordinator.
Farmers and property owners sustained millions of dollars in damage last spring from the high water, Graham said.
The flooding also caused an estimated $50 million in damage to flood protection dikes along the river.
In a report released last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the flood might have been prevented through wiser management of flows from Libby Dam, about 70 miles upstream from Bonners Ferry.
Fields along the river began to get saturated in mid-May, when river flows in Bonners Ferry were measured at 1,758 feet above sea level. For the next month, the river continued to rise until it reached official flood stage of 1,764 feet in mid-June. As the water rose, more crops died.
“We were having significant problems long before we reached flood stage,” Graham said.
The county has asked the National Weather Service to reduce the official flood stage by 2 feet – a level that concurs with a recent recommendation made by an expert from the Corps of Engineers, Graham said.
But in a Dec. 7 e-mail to the mayor of Bonners Ferry, the commander of the corps’ Seattle district said the agency would not alter its dam operations next year, “regardless of what the National Weather Service does.”
Federal emergency disaster response is triggered when flood stage is reached.
The commander, Col. Michael McCormick, said the agency would have to evaluate many different factors before changing spring flows to ensure compliance with a lower flood stage, according to the e-mail.
The corps could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, but the authenticity of the e-mail was verified by Graham.
In the message, McCormick also expressed concern that a lower flood stage would mean more water would have to be stored behind Libby Dam, which would mean less flexibility in managing the dam during rapidly changing weather and snowmelt conditions.
Since the dam became operational in 1975, many flood control dikes have not been maintained – they weren’t supposed to be needed, Graham said. “Libby Dam was going to protect us.”
Compounding the county’s frustration is the federal government’s recent refusal to release disaster assistance funds, including low-interest loans to pay for the damage and fix dikes, Graham said. The state declared a disaster emergency in early June and asked for federal help.
In fall, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the request for assistance, Graham said. “When I asked them why in the world would they turn us down, they said because the Corps of Engineers was involved, that one federal agency is enough.”
Some farmers saw 2 to 3 acres of land wash away each day during the flood, Graham said.
The corps has also denied a request from local officials to help repair dikes chewed up by the flooding. “Bringing the levees up to acceptable standards is a non-federal responsibility,” McCormick wrote to the mayor of Bonners Ferry in response to a request for help.
Graham said farmers are scrambling to find a way to pay for the fix, estimated at $1 million per mile. Fifty-four miles need to be fixed, he added.
“Our chances of getting federal assistance are slimmer and slimmer each day. It’s becoming a much graver problem,” Graham said. “The farmers feel they can’t afford to bring them up to standards.”
Bill Michalk, who farms the rich soil along the Kootenai River near Bonners Ferry, said he suffered between $100,000 and $200,000 in damages and is not sure how he will be able to afford to fix the dikes that once protected his land.
“Apparently they have spent all of their money trying to help the hurricane victims,” Michalk said.
Michalk, who is also a licensed engineer, said his anger has been fueled by the corps’ admission it could have managed the dam better. “The federal government comes in and causes this damage and then turns around and says, ‘Too bad.’ “
The corps is also facing a lawsuit from environmental groups over its management of river flows. On Dec. 13, the Center for Biological Diversity and WildWest Institute sent a letter to the agency demanding it operate Libby Dam in a more fish-friendly manner. If changes aren’t made within 60 days, the groups say they will sue.
The groups want the corps to release more water from Libby Dam in spring, during key spawning periods for endangered Kootenai River sturgeon. Noah Greenwald, a conservation biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity’s office in Portland, said the corps’ admission of mismanaging flows will serve as evidence in the case.
“They’ve admitted a criminal violation,” Greenwald said. “Some of these people should be held personally liable.”
Environmentalists want more water in spring. Some residents along the river want to see less. The conflict underscores the dilemma facing the corps.
In an interview last month, Jim Barton, chief of water management for the agency’s northwestern division, said, “One thing we’ve realized is maybe we can’t provide everything to every different purpose for all occasions.
“We are trying to balance so many different competing demands,” he said.