Wahkiakum County and Diking District 4 are one step closer to approving a plan to address the possible breach of Steamboat Slough Dike.
The Columbia River is eroding the dike; a breach would allow flooding of the 2,000 acres of the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge.
Last Friday, officials from the county, diking district, US Army Corps of Engineers, and US Fish and Wildlife Service met to go over the plan and iron out differences.
None of the parties have funding to armor the shoreline and stop the erosion.
The Corps proposes using Section 536 salmon habitat funding to build a new dike set back from the eroding shoreline and to breach the dike in 1-3 places to create 70-80 acres of wetland habitat for juvenile salmon.
Wahkiakum County commissioners have asked that the setback dike be constructed so that the county could have a graveled road on top and that the Fish and Wildlife Service guarantee county access to the dike.
Col. John W. Eisenhauer, commander and district engineer for the Corps's Portland office, said the agency has designed a smaller dike to stay within their funding.
He added that modifying the proposal by reducing the number of breaches could affect the efficiency of the restoration plan, and then weaken the project's competitiveness for funding.
And adding to the design would increase the cost beyond funding limits.
"Our design is for a 12-foot travel way (on the top of the setback dike) for emergency access," Col. Eisenhauer said. "This is what we felt was acceptable in the 536 program."
However, he added that he would instruct Corps engineers to look at the cost of a wider dike that could accommodate the 14-foot road width which county officials requested.
Commissioner Blair Brady pushed unsuccessfully for assurances from Fish and Wildlife that the county would have a guaranteed right-of-way on the new setback dike.
Ben Harrison, deputy regional chief of the Fish and Wildlife Service Portland office, said federal regulations don't allow such a guarantee without going through a long review process.
"Generally speaking, I don't see why we couldn't approve a use like that," he said, "but we would have to look at specific circumstances. It seems reasonable. We have already done something like that, but I can't guarantee it."
"My biggest problem is there's no assurance," Brady said. "If we don't get it in writing, it doesn't mean squat."
The Fish and Wildlife Service personnel said they would try to accommodate the county's wishes.
The local officials also commented that erosion from ship traffic in the Corps managed channel is a major factor in the erosion.
In the end, local officials indicated they would grudgingly support the proposal.
Diking District Commissioner Maurice Mooers restated his dissatisfaction with the federal agencies and the formation of the refuge, but he acknowledged the gravity of the erosion.
"You know, the situation is that the dike's gone," Mooers said. "It belongs to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Corps of Engineers runs the river. There's nothing that we can do about it. The very best thing we can do about it is just walk away. We just need to find a way to give them that dike that surrounds their property and get the hell out. We can't continue to fight out there on the dike over things we can't control . . . The new dike will belong to you, and we'll be gone. So, as far as I'm concerned, whatever is, is. They're not going to change the flow of the river."
Mooers's comments affected the stances of Commissioners Brady and Cothren. Commissioner Mike Backman was out of town on a vacation trip and missed the meeting.
Cothren had already commented that he felt the eroding dike could go at any time and he wanted to resolve the situation.
"I'm for what the county can gain from the setback dike. When we come to the end, I will resolve that . . . I don't want to be responsible for this thing being flooded . . . I don't think it will make it another year."
"I was going to support Mooers," Brady said, "so I would agree we would go with it (the proposed plan)."
"I'm with Maurie," Cothren said. "We have nothing now."
Commissioners said they would vote on the plan at their February 5 meeting when Backman was present.
"We will do everything we can, if this is to go forward, to make it happen," Col. Eisenhauer said.
Meanwhile, refuge personnel are taking steps to prepare for a possible breach that would allow Columbia River water to reach SR 4.
They plan to begin moving 50 deer from the refuge and Puget Island to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to preserve a sub-population of the deer, and they've been moving equipment to high ground, said refuge complex manager Jackie Ferrier.
"I know there's a long history of mistrust; I can't answer for what came before me," she said. "We're in a situation where we don't want to lose a refuge that has a $28 million taxpayer investment, and an endangered species."