‘Fish v. people’ dispute on the Entiat has agencies scrambling
Officials say better communication would have eased residents’ fears
Friday, November 25, 2011
ENTIAT — Whatever goes into the river upstream could eventually end up downstream — with disastrous results.
Entiat Valley residents started worrying about that this year, when they learned that plans to restore lost salmon habitat would involve depositing more than 1,000 large tree trunks, many with their root balls still attached, into an approximately five-mile stretch of the Entiat River, upstream of their properties.
“You can’t put that huge amount of logs in the river without affecting downstream,” says Wes Childers, who owns 20 acres about nine miles up valley, across the river from Coopers General Store.
He and his wife Sharon Rose and three other families depend on an old bridge with a mid-river concrete footing to access their properties.
They fear that stray logs from one of the habitat projects could wash downstream and topple their bridge during times of high flows.
“Everyone says salmon recovery — that’s great and all good and well, but they’re not thinking about downstream impacts,” Childers says.
He’s not the only one who has questions.
Residents of the Methow Valley in Okanogan County have expressed concern about proposed woody-debris projects there and what their liability would be if a project on their land causes downstream damage.
In Chelan, citizen concerns over boater and swimmer safety prompted city councilmembers in January to approve a new policy that bans offshore placement of woody debris structures in some parts of the lake to mitigate for new docks on Lake Chelan.
Others worry that river rafters or other recreators could be swept into these engineered log structures during high flows.
Entiat has become a focal point of the controversy because three large debris projects will happen there next summer.
Chelan County, the Cascadia Conservation District and the Yakama Nation will each work on its own habitat project within a five-mile stretch of the river known as the “stillwaters” area, about 23 miles up valley.
Mike Kaputa, director of natural resources for Chelan County, says all the projects will be on private land and built with the landowners’ consent. The Chelan-Douglas Land Trust owns the land under Chelan County’s project.
What: Chelan County Large Wood Workshop
When: Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Confluence Technology Center, 285 Technology Center Way, Olds Station, Wenatchee.
Why: To develop common guidelines for large, engineered wood projects in rivers.
Public welcome? Yes
First day: Focus is on projects outside the region, plus Michael Grilliott from the state Department of Natural Resources, who’ll discuss his agency’s large wood policy.
Second day: Includes a presentation from Seattle law firm Sekllenger, Bender on property owners’ and designers’ liability if woody debris projects fail or cause injuries. Other policy speakers include officials from King and Snohomish counties, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the governor’s Salmon Recovery Office.
The projects were planned for last summer, but unusually high river flows, and an appeal that the Childers filed with the state Environmental and Land Use Hearings Board, halted the work.
Childers has since given up the appeal as too costly. The work is now slated for summer 2012.
The three projects together total about $3.5 million. They’re funded mostly by the Bonneville Power Administration as mitigation for fish lost to the federal hydroelectric dams it administers on the Columbia River and its tributaries.
The projects seek to restore lost habitat for the endangered spring chinook salmon, the threatened steelhead and the threatened but non-migratory bull trout.
All three Entiat projects will deploy this “large, woody debris,” arranged in logjam-like structures, to line some stretches of shoreline and create pools in mid-river where young salmon hatchlings can gather and grow.
Who'll fix the damage?
Private land owners who allow engineered log structures on their property, as well as the engineers who designed the structures, could face lawsuits if the structures fail or otherwise damage property.
But what about the agencies that sponsor the projects?
The trunks’ submerged woody root balls also give young fish refuge from predators.
Biologists say that these structures will help more of the babies survive to migrate to the ocean and eventually return to the Entiat in greater numbers to spawn.
The work will include shoreline plantings of native trees and vegetation and refurbishment of side channels long closed off from the river by rocky dikes.
Kaputa says work has long been planned for the Entiat to restore habitat lost to dredging for flood control in the 1940s and to the logging industry, which used the river to float old-growth trees logged up valley to lumber mills far downstream, scouring the shorelines as they went.
If left untouched, the river would gradually eat away at banks and wash fallen debris, naturally, into log jams over the course of decades. Agency officials want to speed the process to more quickly return the river to a more natural state, before the old-growth timber was removed.
That’s a challenge, Kaputa says, now that more people live along the river.
He insists that the projects are backed by sound science that hasn’t been well-communicated to area residents.
“The questions people are asking are all valid questions,” Kaputa said. “I’d say on the government side, we all dropped the ball on public outreach. We could have done better.”
He added, “We’re trying to balance safety with the habitat component. Safety is obviously the top priority.”
Large, woody debris projects are designed to imitate nature. Some are designed to stay anchored in place, others to wander and gather more debris behind them as river flows fluctuate.
Kaputa and agency officials say the structures are designed to withstand high flows and will be monitored in future years to gauge their impact on the river and fish populations, but not necessarily for how they affect properties downstream.
“We can’t do projects and just walk away once we’ve built them,” he said. “We’ll need to monitor the projects, because rivers are dynamic. They change. Follow-up is critical.”
Studies and computer modeling have been completed to show how the river and surrounding lands would react to the structures under different volumes of flow, he says. The river’s natural twists and turns would make it highly unlikely for the biggest logs to float very far downstream.
The structures in the Yakama’s project, the largest and farthest upriver, would be anchored in place with cables and boulders.
The Cascadia project will happen upstream of existing log structures it installed in 2010 on the Tyee Ranch to protect native plantings along the shoreline.
Project spokeswoman Susan Dretke says it will contain some structures anchored in place and others that are intended to wander.
More woody debris projects in NCW
Projects are planned for both the Methow and White rivers to repair lands damaged by old-growth logging.
Yakama Nation and the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation.
Cost: $8 million to $10 million to build. Total cost including follow-up monitoring and analysis of fish behavior, $16 million over about five years.
Funding source: Mostly the Bonneville Power Administration with some from the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The project is not yet funded.
When: Fall 2012 and 2013
Where: A 60-acre flood plane near the forest service smoke jumpers base, between Twisp and Winthrop. Structures will dot an eight-mile stretch of river. Another project about a mile upstream from this project will reconnect the river to a side channel.
Status: Engineering, permitting and land acquisition underway.
Contact: Chris Johnson, executive director, Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, 509-422-0300.
Project sponsor: Cascade Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group
Cost: $352,000, estimate
Funding source: State Salmon Recovery Board, HCP Tributary Committee (Chelan and Douglas PUDs and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife). The project is not yet funded.
Where: Lower few miles of the river, just above Lake Wenatchee. Will use some wood to stabilize wood already there. No large engineered logjams are planned.
Contact: Jason Lundgren, executive director, Cascade Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, 509-888-7268.
— Christine Pratt, World staff
Chelan County’s project, the smallest and lowermost, will use natural anchoring systems based on design. Some logs will be driven into the riverbed and others carefully fitted together for strength, Kaputa says.
Clear, non-technical communication about the science and engineering of the large wood structures might have eased a lot of worries, Kaputa says, had residents received it earlier this year, before they saw scores of trucks laden with hundreds of trunks and boulders, head up their valley.
Once the word got out, turnout at community meetings totaled as many as 50 people. Some of the meetings were organized by community members, themselves.
Agencies are now trying to make amends by improving public outreach with site tours and workshops.
An upcoming, two-day workshop in Wenatchee will gather project planners, biologists and engineers at the Confluence Technology Center to talk about the projects, answer questions and describe liability issues.
During a “100-year” storm event, like one last spring, no one can guarantee that private property won’t be damaged, Kaputa and other agency officials say.
Over the course of the May 16 weekend, an intense storm dumped enough heavy rain and melting snow on the region to turn mild creeks into raging torrents that threatened homes, toppled bridges and carried off entire trees.
Childers points to intense damage that weekend in Kittitas County on the Taneum and Manastash creeks. Swollen, debris-filled water on the Taneum, which contains engineered log structures, damaged at least one bridge and flowed onto private property.
Kittitas County and agency officials deny that the structures were to blame for the damage. They point to Manastash Creek, which is more populated and contains no engineered wood structures, yet damage to property was much worse.
It’s a circumstance that worries Childers.
“If there’s a flood and someone’s bridge gets knocked out, they’re going to say it was an act of nature,” he said. “Then it’s like the little guy going up against this mass of attorneys and unlimited funds. And it’s not fair. It’s just not fair.”
Christine Pratt: 665-1173
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