The Satsop River in Western Washington is washing away productive farmland, and the livelihood of farm families, while the bureaucracy dithers and the environmental lobby stands against any reasonable solution.
Steve Willis says he’s losing an acre a year of the farm his family has worked since 1925. Gravel washing down from the Olympic Mountains continues to pile up on one side of the channel and deflects the current. The redirected river cuts through the Willis farm.
And he’s not alone.
The erosion has put farms and ranches that grow hay, corn and pumpkins and raise dairy and beef cattle at risk, according to a report compiled by an engineering firm. No one has surveyed the amount of farmland lost, but the report notes the river has moved up to 100 feet in a year in some places and has caused the loss of “tens of acres” of productive farmland.
The impacted farmers and ranchers have wanted a solution for years. The problem has become so bad that even various government agencies agree that something has to be done. Two things stand in the say: a bureaucracy that is prone to inaction and an environmental lobby that resists even the most minimal efforts.
Many government agencies are involved in trying to develop a plan to stop the Satsop River from eroding farmland. No single federal, state or local agency appears to have the final responsibility.
With no one being responsible, plans languish.
This year, logs and rocks may be tied together and placed on the riverbank. The idea is the river would embed the logs and rocks into the dirt and shore up the bank. At this time, however, there is no money, permits or plan for doing that.
One potential solution is to remove accumulated gravel bars that are diverting the river and causing the erosion. While that would provide an easy, short-term fix, there is little political will to even surgically extract gravel from the river for fear it would hurt salmon.
Local legislators have tried to get pilot programs to show that removing gravel need not harm salmon. Those efforts got nowhere because of opposition from Indian tribes and the environmental lobby.
The fear is that removing gravel will damage fish habitat and create problems downstream. Environmentalists say the river is returning to its natural state, a desirable outcome in and of itself — even if it comes at a cost to landowners.
“If you live in a floodplain, you have to understand the river moves,” environmental lobbyist Bruce Wishart said.
Rivers do move. But then, sometimes species die off. It’s unclear to us why either outcome has to be accepted. It doesn’t seem that you have to sacrifice farmland to save fish, or sacrifice fish to save farmland. A plan employing a variety of tools seems to be reasonable.
Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, says it’s time for the Legislature to act.
“We are losing farmland now. We’re having homes flooded now. We need to move from discussion to action.”