Agreement to construct a new dike at the Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge is apparently still in the wind.
The US Army Corps of Engineers and US Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns the refuge, have proposed building a new dike set back from the Columbia River shoreline where the current is eroding an existing dike. Salmon habitat enhancement funds would finance the project, and the existing dike would be breached in one or two places to create a wetland habitat conducive to rearing juvenile salmon.
However, the federal agencies need approval to cut the dike from Diking District 4, which owns the dike, and Wahkiakum County, which has a right-of-way for a road on the dike.
Last week, Diking District Commissioner Maurice Mooers said he approved the plan on condition that the federal agencies give the diking district ownership or control of the new dike. Wahkiakum County commissioners said they would support Mooers.
To support his position, Mooers presented pages from 1922 court proceedings in which the district condemned private land through imminent domain for the site of the original dike. Those rights should transfer to the new dike, he said.
"This leaves the private landowner out of the picture," he said. "We'll have a mile of new dike. We need to have access to it in case anything were to happen to it.
"All I'm asking is that they transfer that authority to the new dike."
For the federal agency, that's not an easy task to accomplish.
In a February 11 letter addressed to Mooers and signed by USFWS Deputy Regional Chief Ben Harrison said the agency is willing to work with the diking district to develop an agreement "for ongoing maintenance and care of the new setback dike."
"We believe it would be mutually beneficial for both the Service and the District to share maintenance responsibilities of this new dike," the letter says. "...we would support the District's efforts and work to negotiate a right-of-way (ROW) or other appropriate legal instrument for the new setback dike.
"While at this time we do not anticipate any issues that would preclude the district from getting a ROW for the setback dike, we cannot make a final determination until we have gone through our federal approval process including, but not limited to, compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act."
The letter also comments that the Fish and Wildlife Service is the sponsor of the dike, which is to be built with federal funds on federal land. The diking district can't condemn federal land, and, the letter states, "There is no requirement for the District to have a right-of-way or other authority regarding the setback dike, other than perhaps to assure that any connections between the existing and setback dikes are properly designed."
The letter concludes, "We hope that this letter provides the assurances that you require to grant approval to the Corps for building the setback dike and breach of the Steamboat Slough Dike."
Mooers hadn't received the mailed copy of the letter Tuesday morning; he read a copy emailed to county commissioners.
"This is more of the same thing," he said. "We'd have to go through the process of all those reviews, and we have never gotten anything from them.
"I'm done dealing with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The Corps can go ahead and build the new dike, but I'm not willing to breach the old dike. If it breaches on its own, that's okay."
Fish and Wildlife Service personnel have started capturing deer on the refuge to transport them to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to ensure that a herd population remains in case the eroding dike breaches before the setback dike is completed.
So far, personnel have captured and transferred 11 animals, Refuge Manager Joel David said Tuesday. Personnel are using a net trap over a bait of apples and pears; they have also captured one deer with a tranquilizer dart.
The plan is to move 50 deer from the refuge and another 15 from Puget Island before April 10, David said. An estimated 80-90 deer live on the refuge.