Washingtonians seek help against floods, wildfires
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Residents of the flood-prone Chehalis River valley brought their concerns to the Senate Agriculture, Water and Rural Economic Development Committee on Jan. 21, describing their predicament and asking for money.
The 115-mile-long Chehalis River, whose basin covers 2,660 square miles of Southwestern Washington, is the second-largest river in the state. The farming-rich valley has a history of flooding, most recently in 2007 and 2009. Both floods destroyed homes and farms and closed a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5.
J. Vander Stoop, of the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority, said the 2007 flood caused nearly $1 billion in damage to farms, businesses and school districts.
Vander Stoop was part of a Flood Mitigation Workgroup assembled by then Gov. Chris Gregoire. Stakeholders included representatives from agriculture, municipal governments and the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis. Coordinating the group was the William D. Ruckelshaus Center.
Last year, the Legislature dedicated $5 million to start work on nine flood mitigation projects. Before she left office, Gregoire included an additional $28 million in her proposed capital budget.
Vander Stoop called the appropriation a "modest down payment" to address projects like building a water-retention facility and raising or buying out homes that are flooded regularly.
Jay Gordon, of the Washington State Dairy Federation, is one of several farmers whose land was flooded. He told the committee that flooding has forced some farms out of business and has driven some families to divorce, substance abuse and heart attacks.
"It causes (farmers) now to wonder when the rain hits the next time," he said.
In addition to flooding concerns, the committee also heard from areas hit by wildfire.
Anna Lael, from the Kittitas County Conservation District, described last year's Taylor Bridge Fire, which was first spotted on Aug. 13 and by the next day had burned 20,000 acres. Lael said 61 homes and hundreds of outbuildings were lost. Air quality issues continued long after the fire was brought under control Aug. 28, and rain runoff caused widespread erosion.
Thinning and pruning projects under the Firewise cost-share program made some homes defensible for firefighters, she said. Conservation districts and the state Conservation Commission seek funding to expand the reach of that program.
Firewise educates landowners about practices that help protect their property through landscaping, home construction and design, community planning and forest and land management. Kittitas County has eight of the 44 Firewise communities in the state.
Lael said the number of projects has increased from fewer than 80 in 2009 to more than 160 in 2012, when $260,000 was paid out to reimburse homeowners for fuels reduction.
Assistance has come from other conservation districts as well as from the state Conservation Commission and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Ron Schultz, of the Conservation Commission, said his agency is looking for federal funding to expand the Firewise program.