The Office of the Chehalis Basin initially planned to take a small group of local officials, technical experts and outside consultants in a van to visit sites typically impacted by flooding in the basin. The goal of the site tour was to orient some out-of-town members of the Local Actions Non-Dam Alternative (LAND) steering group to the area so that everyone at the table discussing ways to mitigate flood damage in the basin had the same baseline understanding of the needs and opportunities in the area.
But word of the Chehalis Basin tour spread quickly among local officials, LAND steering group members and members of the third-party consulting team, MIG, and before long, the Office of the Chehalis Basin had to look into upgrading their van tour to a transit bus to accommodate everyone who wanted to join.
Organizers ultimately had to secure a coach bus to accommodate the roughly 36 people who took part in the March 16 tour.
“We’ve had so much interest in this work that we’ve had to move up to this big bus, and we embrace it,” said Andrea McNamara Doyle, director of the office of the Chehalis Basin.
The LAND team is a nine-member group, aided by MIG and other consultants, that’s working to develop and evaluate a comprehensive, basin-wide flood damage reduction approach that includes alternatives to a new dam that is being considered on the upper reaches of the Chehalis River near Pe Ell.
Roughly $3.26 million in funding for the LAND effort was earmarked in the $70 million biennium spending plan that the Chehalis Basin Board passed last year, according to previous Chronicle reporting.
The overarching goal for the group is to “leave no stone left unturned” when it comes to dam alternatives to mitigating flood damage, said MIG President Daniel Iacofano.
“It’s our job to make sure all the options have been thoroughly looked at, evaluated and compared in a way that the community in this area can understand and get behind,” he said Wednesday. “This is one of many trips and one of many points of contact we hope to have with all of you.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the fall of 2020 released an Environmental Impact Statement evaluating the proposed flood retention facility.
The Corps looked at 61 different alternatives for protecting families and communities in the basin from future catastrophic flood damage and found that none of the other alternatives, without the proposed dam, merited further evaluation. The federal review included proposals to buy out and remove thousands of families from their current homes, returning the river to its natural condition, floodproofing, changing land use practices, creating emergency bypasses for Interstate 5 or building dams in other locations.
Participants visited areas in the basin that experience frequent flooding, including downtown Centralia, the Chehalis-Centralia Airport and parts of Adna, and discussed ongoing problems in those areas as well as efforts taken in those areas to mitigate flood damage.
China Creek Flood Reduction and Fish Habitat Project
The 46-acre plot between North Gold Street and BNSF’s rail line in Centralia has transformed over the last year from an empty field into a peaceful refuge for local wildlife as the City of Centralia works to complete the second phase of a flood water storage and fish habitat improvement project.
The ducks and geese are fans of the work so far, said Public Works Director Kim Ashmore. But the project’s primary goal is to reduce flooding impacts to downtown Centralia and to improve fish passage.
With carefully-placed vegetation and log-stops, the storage pond is intended to store water during heavy rain events and drain back into the creek during dry weather. Culverts and pedestrian paths throughout the site are intended to make the pond accessible to the area’s aquatic and human visitors.
“Basically, we just created a really nice environment for everybody,” said Community Development Director Emil Pierson.
The ongoing development along Gold Street is the second phase of the China Creek Flood Reduction project. The first phase was completed near Little Hanaford Road in 2019.
“That (Little Hanaford) project along with this (Gold Street) project we hope will reduce every flood except that 100 year flood and also improve the wildlife and fish habitat,” said Ashmore.
Work on the Gold Street phase of the project started last summer and should be completed later this spring.
The Little Hanaford phase of the project cost $2.1 million and the ongoing Gold Street phase has gone over its $2.91 million budget. Of that amount, $2.3 million was covered by the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority.
The city is considering a third China Creek project on Roswell Road.
Home Elevation and Flood-Proofing in Centralia
None of the Centralia homes that took on water during the 2007 flood were damaged during the January 2022 flood, according to Pierson, primarily because of work the City of Centralia has done between the two flood events to help residents elevate or flood-proof homes.
“We are very big proponents of elevating homes, it’s one of the tools that works,” he said Tuesday.
It typically costs between $70,000 and $120,000 to elevate a standard residence, Pierson said. Brick structures, however, can cost upwards of $150,000 to elevate.
“Brick homes, I would not endorse elevating, we would find another way,” he said.
Elevating structures is the city’s preferred method of mitigating damage to existing structures — but ideally, Pierson said he hopes new development won’t move into areas that receive frequent flooding.
The City of Centralia has been working on strategically buying out large parcels of land that frequently flood in an effort to keep those areas free of development, Pierson said.
“Let’s graze cows there, let’s do whatever, but let's preserve them in perpetuity,” he said.
Chehalis-Centralia Airport Levee
There were many nervous eyes on the levee protecting the Chehalis-Centralia Airport from the rising Chehalis River on Jan. 7.
Out of an abundance of caution in case the World War II-era levee broke from the stress of the rapidly rising river, pilots moved their aircraft to a stretch of high ground and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) closed a nearby section of I-5.
The Chehalis River crested at 174.9 feet in Centralia on Jan. 7. Flood water got within 2 feet of the top of the levee before it started receding outside the airport, but the levee held.
“We know we can withstand that (water level) and we'll be fine. But we were right on the edge, because this is not as high as the water bodies actually got. It actually got quite a bit higher than this level here, but it gives a good idea,” said Airport Operations Coordinator Brandon Rakes.
The airport’s levee is about 1.8 miles long and protects both the airport and a commercial area north of the airport’s property in Chehalis. A recent $1.2 million project raised the height of the levee and widened the levee from 15 to 30 feet, according to previous Chronicle reporting.
There is a proposed plan to raise the levy by another 4 to 7 feet currently under consideration, according to previous Chronicle reporting.
Some water did breach the levee at a weak point in the southwest corner during the January flood, but that water dumped into a ditch designed to carry it to the airport’s pump station on the north side of the property.
The pump station — which was replaced in 2017 — houses a primary pump and a backup pump powered by a generator.
“Those pumps can pump 10,000 gallons per minute. So as we're having a major event like we had in early January, those help to keep this area from basically filling up from just rainwater and stormwater runoff. So they're not going to keep the floodwaters if they were to start coming in, out, necessarily. But they do help with that,” Rakes said.
When asked about the importance of protecting an airport and its commercial properties during a flood event, Rakes said that in addition to the economic revenue the airport and surrounding businesses provide to the community, a functioning airport would be essential if emergency flood recovery efforts were needed.
“Let's hope we never need that. But better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” Rakes said.
Only three houses in Adna escaped the 2007 flood relatively unscathed, according to Adna resident and Chehalis Basin Board member Dan Maughan.
“Every other house in this community flooded,” he said.
The three that weren’t damaged happened to have been built atop a natural levee, Maughan said, which kept them above the flood water in 2007.
But a change in the landscape between the 2007 and 2022 floods inadvertently changed how flood water moved through Adna, meaning some residents who were basing their flood knowledge on the 2007 flood were more impacted by the 2022 flood than they expected.
“They all flooded just two months ago,” said Adna homeowner Sean Brattain on Wednesday, pointing to two houses behind his property. “And it wasn't expected. And the reason it wasn't expected is because something new has happened here with developments that they didn't realize it stopped the water,” said Adna homeowner Sean Brattain.
Repaving on the Willapa Hills Trail raised the elevation of the trail and essentially created a levee, Brattain said. Small fish culverts installed on the trail weren’t enough to adequately drain January’s flood water, so water backed up behind the paved trail and flooded Brattain’s home, along with two of his neighbors.
“Anybody that talked to me in January, I felt like we live in New Orleans because of the lack of drainage back here. We could not get into our backyard until the Sunday after the flood,” Brattain said.
Adna residents don’t have many feasible options to protect themselves against major flooding.
There was a proposition to move Adna residents up to the surrounding hillsides, which Brattain said he didn’t think was feasible due to the logistics of moving the town and the lack of water and other utilities on the hillside.
“For us as residents, this is where we're at. And everyone knows the housing market. Yeah, we could have sold … Then what? I'm 51, I don't want to start over on a mortgage,” he said.
When considering potential dam alternatives, the LAND team will take into account cost, long-term effectiveness in reducing flood damage, impacts on local wildlife and impacts on residents and businesses, according to a statement on the group’s website.
The LAND steering group intends to present its final recommendations to the Chehalis Basin Board this fall.