Residents along Ward Road in Sequim are continuing to seek answers to what they see as ever-greater Dungeness River flooding.
The Ward Road property owners believe the flooding, which they say has been ongoing since 1985, is caused by trees and debris that flowed downstream and by those that continue to fall in as the river’s banks erode.
They also say they know the source of many of the problems: In 1964, the U.S. Army Corps built a 2.3-mile levee on the east bank of the lower river to block floodwaters from flowing across farmland and through the Dungeness community before entering Dungeness Bay.
Lacking the historical outlet to the east, floodwaters could only spread west.
In response, in 1983 Lloyd Beebe, then-owner of Olympic Game Farm, built a 4,000-foot levee on the west bank.
This summer the landowners reached out to another local organization with both political pull and natural resources expertise.
“We tried contacting local, county, state and federal officials to help us with this,” said resident Mel Groff, “but no one was responding, so we went to the (Jamestown S’Klallam) tribe.”
“What’s going to happen when the river floods again and does even more damage? We’re going to get flooded out of our homes.”
Randy Johnson, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s restoration planner, said prior to the building of the levees the river was “merrily running down the valley.” He said narrowing the channel has had a profound impact on the river. “Silt, sand and rocks fill the channel, then are scoured out, then it’s refilled,” he said.
This dynamic is particularly harmful to the fish population, which finds that portion of the river a “hostile environment,” Johnson said.
The tribe has no jurisdiction in the matter, Johnson said, and was simply brought aboard to help. In fact, he said, the issues are made more complicated by the multiple authorities that have jurisdiction over that portion of the river. He pointed out that in order to make any changes in or near the river, a landowner likely would have to receive approval from Clallam County, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the overlapping jurisdiction, “I don’t see any organization that will intervene to reduce their flood risks,” Johnson said.
That doesn’t mean the tribe is altogether out of the picture. Scott Chitwood, the tribe’s natural resources director, cited the tribe’s “vested interest” in the issue, saying the federal government has a trust responsibility to protect natural resources, such as fish habitat, for tribes.
“Poor dike planning has harmed fish and wildlife habitat and put natural resources at risk for years,” Chitwood said. “Now property owners are being affected.”
“We can help with the dike setback project,” Chitwood said, noting the tribe is working with Clallam County, the Corps and Fish and Wildlife to find answers and funding.
Both Groff and his neighbor, Larry Odmond, said steps could be taken now to reduce the possibility of flooding.
Odmond is frustrated by the inaction, saying he has spent more than $1 million tearing down and rebuilding the home he purchased on the bank of the river. That included raising the height of his property eight feet.
While touring the continually eroding west bank of the river, the two said dozens of trees have fallen into the river in just the past year, creating more erosion by forcing the river’s flow out of its former channel.
They recommended dragging the trees to the west bank and cabling them into place, creating a new superstructure on which a more substantial and permanent bank could form.
Groff also noted the tens of thousands of federal dollars that have been given in grants for Dungeness River projects in the past two years, saying the project he and Odmond are proposing would be inexpensive by comparison.
“They are spending $52,000 to extend the (railroad) bridge,” he said. “But they don’t want to save lives and property. Why?”
Hannah Merrill, a natural resources planner with the Clallam County Department of Community Development, says help is on the way, but it may take a while. In December 2009, her department received a grant to conduct a feasibility study on possible solutions to the flooding issue. They have entered into a contract with the Corps, she said, which is performing a study to determine how best to realign “a one-mile portion” of the levee south of Old School House Road — changes that should alleviate the flooding.
Merrill said a good deal of progress already has been made toward implementing a solution, with the necessary land already owned by Clallam County or the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“The Corps can’t be involved until the county or state owns the property,” she said. “We’ve purchased the properties to move forward with the project. We’re hoping to have the plan (completed) this year.”
The feasibility study will determine the costs and benefits of various configurations that could be created as the levees are moved back from the river bank. Among other topics, the researchers are looking at “how we get the most salmon habitat recovery and flood reduction ... while not overspending,” Merrill said.
Merrill noted because the west side of the river bank is in private hands, there is little to be done other than work on the east bank.
“We’ll do one side and if that’s successful, we’ll re-visit the other side,” she said.
“There are various potential flood hazard reduction projects commonly performed on Washington rivers,” Johnson said. “But restoring the Dungeness River’s lost floodplain by setting back the dikes appears to be the best solution for meeting the needs of Dungeness salmon and residents.”
Robert Beebe, who now owns Olympic Game Farm, said his grandfather was approached by the state “about five years ago” with an offer to purchase the land between Ward Road and the river. The plan at the time was to move the Beebe levee back to Ward Road, thereby extending the flood plain west. The elder Beebe declined.
Robert Beebe said this week he hasn’t been contacted by anyone in recent years about purchasing the land.
Johnson said when the original offer was made, the Department of Fish and Wildlife had the necessary funds.
“That’s gone now,” Johnson said.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.