CHEHALIS, Wash. — Climate change makes flood-control projects more urgent, Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday, though he said it was premature to endorse building a dam to protect southwest Washington farms swamped a decade ago.
Inslee stopped briefly at a Lewis County dairy where 258 cows drowned in a 2007 flood. The governor cut short a tour of the Chehalis River Basin to confer with other governors about President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement.
Before leaving, Inslee predicted climate change will make extreme weather events more common. “The work we knew was vital 20 years ago will be more vital 50 years from now,” he said.
The 2007 flood damaged dozens of farms, flooded thousands of homes and commercial buildings, and closed Interstate 5 for four days. Since then, some farms have received aid to build “critter pads,” high ground to herd livestock if the land floods again. The state, however, has yet to settle on a plan to prevent another catastrophic flood.
Lawmakers are likely to appropriate money to continue studying whether to build a dam on the Chehalis River. Tribes and environmental groups have raised concerns about a dam’s effect on fish.
Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon, who’s on a board advising the state, said he expects the debate over a dam to intensify over the next two years.
“We’re getting down to the proverbial brass tacks,” he said. “Folks are saying, ‘Are you ready to make a decision? What we’ve had to say is, ‘We’re getting closer, bear with us.’”
Gordon said a dam will have to be combined with habitat projects, such as planting trees, removing culverts and digging channels. “Our goal has been we want more fish, not less fish,” he said.
Another option is to buy farmland and let the river and tributaries spread out.
Inslee said it was too early for him to support any particular option. “It will take more work to get to that position,” he said.
A dam or buying out landowners could cost more than $1 billion, according to preliminary cost estimates. Lawmakers, ordered by the state Supreme Court to increase funding for public education before doing anything else, have not identified a way to fund big water projects.
Inslee proposed that a portion of the revenue from a carbon tax finance flood-control and irrigation projects. The Legislature has rejected that proposal. Two Republican senators proposed a statewide parcel fee, but that idea also did not gain political support. A House committee studied funding options, but disbanded without making a recommendation.
John Brunoff, owner of the dairy visited by Inslee, said he would prefer a dam over buying out farms.
“Taking farmland out of farming is never a good thing,” he said. “The other side of it is, if somebody offered me enough money to do it, it might be a different story.”
The 2007 flood left Brunoff with 14 cows. He’s rebuilt the organic dairy to 180 cows. Near the barn is a mound of dirt large enough for 200 cows.
“We’d at least be able to save the cows, but as far as reducing the flooding, not much has been done,” Brunoff said. “The pad is a good insurance deal, but if water gets that high again, I’m done. I’ll save my cows, but I’ll be done.”