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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Spokane County declares emergency as flooded creeks wash out roads

UPDATED: Thu., Feb. 16, 2017

By Kip Hill Chad Sokol and Jonathan Glover The Spokesman-Review

Heavy rain and melting snow washed out roads and caused mudslides across Washington on Thursday.

In Spokane County there were at least nine roads with portions either washed away or submerged, and the forecast calls for more flooding Friday.

Mitch Reister, the county engineer and director of the Public Works Department, said the damages so far are more than $200,000.

“That doesn’t include anything for private properties or businesses or the cities,” Reister said.

In Adams County, a driver plunged his Chevy Blazer 15 feet off of a washed-out road into a swollen creek. He had to escape and swim to the bank.

The driver, identified as Richard Ledgerwood, “acted quickly and was able to free himself and escape unharmed” before his SUV was swept away, according to the Adams County Sheriff’s Department.

The driver flagged other motorists on Lind-Warden Road to warn them of the washout, likely preventing other accidents, the sheriff’s office said.

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Road crews are monitoring the flooded areas that are already closed, as well as more than half a dozen areas that appear likely to flood.

“Once the water recedes, then we can assess the damage a lot better,” said Robert Keneally, the county’s maintenance and operations superintendent.

Keneally said water erosion often begins on one side of a road and can cut a “trough” through the asphalt.

“If you see water over a roadway, stop and don’t go over that,” he said. “You really don’t know what the condition of the road is under that.”

The National Weather Service issued a flood warning for the Spokane region Thursday. More rain and warm temperatures are expected through the weekend, but Reister pointed out that most of the snow on the ground had melted.

“There’s quite a bit up in the mountains, so river flooding is still a concern,” he said. “Right now we don’t really have any bridges that are being threatened, which is obviously one of my biggest concerns.”

The emergency declaration is an opportunity to ask for federal dollars to help offset costs.

It also suspends state bidding requirements, allowing officials a faster way to hire a contractor and get the roads fixed.

The last time the county declared a state of emergency was during the November 2015 windstorm. Reister said the flooding this time is “a lot more widespread.”

The county will reopen the roads “as soon as we can,” he said. “Some of the damage is extensive enough that they could be closed for some period of time.”

Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter, a county spokeswoman, said crews already were busy filling potholes with cold-packed asphalt.

“This winter is turning out very expensive for this area,” she said.

Stormwater tanks overflow into river

The rain and meltwater also caused six of the 25 pipes leading into the Spokane River to spill out a mixture of storm runoff and raw sewage.

Four pipes near Spokane’s city center – what the city calls “combined stormwater overflow” points – were discharging into the river, along with one pipe near the Trent Avenue bridge and another along Pettet Drive near Doomsday Hill.

The discharges began Wednesday evening and continued into the morning Thursday, according to monitoring by the city of Spokane.

The city has been building massive underground tanks to capture stormwater runoff in an attempt to prevent sewage from reaching the river, with two major downtown projects beginning this year. When completed, the tanks will be capable of collecting 14.3 million gallons of water before sewage is discharged into the river.

Marcia Davis, a principal engineer in the city’s Integrated Capital Management department, said the new tanks being constructed near City Hall and at First Avenue and Adams Street will address much of the current runoff near downtown.

“That’s mostly impervious area, where you get a lot of runoff,” Davis said. “That’s the one area that we always get a lot of overflows.”

Work on the tank at First and Adams recently closed portions of Sprague Avenue as workers prepare to bury the tank later this year.

Brook Beeler, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology based in Spokane, said the primary concern during runoff events is health and safety.

“We want to advise folks to avoid any contact with flooding water that may maintain material from the sewer,” Beeler said.

There are no provisions in the city’s current permit with the Ecology Department to limit overflow into the river, which has averaged at about 52 million gallons annually over the past five years, Beeler said.

The agency is working to draft a new permit under guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency that is expected to limit the number of outflows to one event, per pipe, per year.

More rain expected, then a dry spell

Days of rain and warm weather have resulted in rising water levels in rivers and creeks throughout Spokane County.

Latah Creek, also known as Hangman Creek, was flowing at 7.97 feet Thursday morning and was expected to rise to 12.3 feet by late night before beginning to retreat.

A city employee in Tekoa, which sits along Latah Creek south of Spokane, said a large field was flooded but there were no reports of damage.

Robin Fox, a weather service meteorologist, said there have been scattered reports of flooding in the region, mostly near the towns of Valleyford and Waverly south of Spokane.

County workers were preparing for late-night flooding at the Hangman Valley Golf Course near U.S. Highway 195, said Doug Chase, director of Spokane County Parks, Recreation and Golf.

Chase said the pedestrian and vehicle bridges on the golf course are designed so that railings and panels can be easily removed, reducing the likelihood of damage.

And just days ago, workers completed the most recent phase of a long-running effort to stabilize the Latah Creek shoreline that abuts the golf course, Chase said. “This is exactly what we did that for – for this kind of event,” he said.

Some residents near Moscow, Idaho, along Paradise Creek watched as floods encroached on property.

A flood warning also was issued in Boundary County, where public crews handed out free sandbags.

Spokane and Coeur d’Alene should expect another quarter-inch of rain into Friday morning, with temperatures in the mid-30s.

Temperatures on the West Plains could dip to 32 degrees at night over the weekend.

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