Commissioners from Wahkiakum County and Diking District 4 on Tuesday gave conditioned approval to the US Army Corps of Engineers proposal to build a setback dike on the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge.
The Columbia River is eroding the existing dike, and no agency has money to halt the erosion. The Corps has proposed using federal salmon habitat enhancement funds to build a new dike set back from the shoreline to create wetland habitat and, if the dike breaches, protect the refuge and inland area from flooding.
Maurice Mooers, diking district commissioner, and county Commissioners Blair Brady and Dan Cothren said they thought the proposal was the best they could wrest from the federal agencies.
Mooers asked that the diking district be given authority over the new setback dike, and the commissioners, including Commissioner Mike Backman, backed the request.
Mooers presented a portion of a 1922 Superior Court property ruling in which the diking district condemned rights-of-way for the original dike. He asked that the county seek a commitment from the Corps and US Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the refuge and is part of the diking district, that the diking district would have authority over the dike so that it could act if the setback dike was threatened by erosion or flooding.
"If we give up that right to a mile of our dike, the control of the diking district is gone," he said, "and what I want is (that control) transferred from that dike to the setback dike which is a setback dike, which is a replacement for the old dike.
"That I'll support," Mooers said. "I'm in favor of this; if they can't accept that, then the ball is in their court, not my court."
Corps and Fish and Wildlife officials hadn't seen the document until the meeting and were unsure of its effect on the process.
"I don't know how it would pertain," said Jackie Ferrier, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Willapa Complex, which includes the refuge. She said she would have to present the response to agency lawyers for analysis.
Commissioners pointed out that the diking district could start new condemnation proceedings in the future.
Amy Gibbons, Corps program manager for the project, said the Corps built the original dike and turned it over to the sponsor, the diking district.
Now, she said, the sponsor is the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"If we build that levee, then we turn maintenance and operation of that levee over to our sponsor," she said.
Gibbons added that if the diking district were the sponsor, there would be a cost share requirement for the district, and the Corps would turn the levee over to the district. "But right now, they haven't shown any interest in being a sponsor," she said. "So we go with our sponsor being Fish and Wildlife."
"In answer to you," Mooers said, "we were never spoken to; we were never given the opportunity to be a sponsor. We knew the consequences; we would obviously have gone ahead with it, but we were never given an opportunity to be a co-sponsor in this thing."
At one point in the discussion, Commissioner Mike Backman suggested county residents would support a tax levy to repair the original dike.
"I think people want the road; they want it fixed," he said. "I think we have time."
Brady disagreed. He pointed out that the funding for the work will be allocated to other salmon habitat projects if the current proposal is delayed longer; it has already been delayed one month. The county has no authority or ownership over the dike, he added; the county's only interest is the road on top of the dike.
"I don't believe there would be support county wide to fix it," he said.
Assessor Bill Coons said he had calculated a rough assessment of $1.70 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Public Works Director Pete Ringen reminded the audience that engineers last year estimated dike repair costs ranging from $2.5 to $4 million.
Mooers commented the setback dike was the best long-term option, for the river will continue to erode the shoreline.
"We've got to get somewhat practical," he said. "I hate the thought of losing it, and I hate the thought that they don't have enough money to make a roadway that's passable, but that's the best solution we have because it's going to be a continuing expense. It's not sustainable the way it is."
Commissioners have been tough negotiators, Commissioner Cothren responded.
"We've got as far as we're going to get," he said. "We have to pick our battles. You've got to balance this. I think we've got what we're going to get and we need to move on."
After more discussion, Cothren moved to write a letter stating the commissioners' support, with the condition and other suggestions. The motion passed 3-0.
After the meeting, Gibbons said the Corps could proceed with the project.