Officials revisit setback dike, road issues
Local officials plan to meet next month with federal officials to go over expectations arising from the construction of a new setback dike along Steam Boat Slough Road.
Wahkiakum County commissioners and Diking District Commissioner Maurice Mooers want the US Army Corps of Engineers to sign legal documents giving them ownership of the new dike and a guarantee for the repair of any damage to SteamBoat Slough Road.
The Columbia River is eating into the existing dike and threatening to breach and flood the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge. When no agencies could come up with funds to repair the dike, the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service obtained salmon habitant enhancement money that will allow construction of a new dike setback from the shoreline, with the land between the river and new dike turned into wetland habitat.
A contractor started work late last summer on the project but was unable to complete it because of heavy rainfall during September. The work should be completed this year.
Local officials continue to express the concerns and objections to the project that they raised last year.
County officials are concerned the heavy construction equipment will erode Steamboat Slough Road, and diking commissioner Mooers says ownership of the dike should pass to the diking district so that it can conduct maintenance and repair operations as needed in the future.
Federal officials explained their frame of reference during the county commissioners' meeting Tuesday.
Amy Gibbons, one of the Corps project managers, said she is working with county Public Works Director Pete Ringen to reach an agreement on road repairs.
It is the intention of the Corps to leave the dike road in as good a condition as when the project started, Gibbons said. Their contract with the contractor makes that condition a requirement. However, Corps legal counsel recommend against the Corps signing an agreement with the county because it would be open ended.
"The last month or so, we've come up and met with Pete to assess the condition of the road," said Gibbons. "We have worked with Pete, especially in the last week, to provide a written description of the repairs that we anticipate will need to be done and will try to meet his expectations."
Commissioner Blair Brady responded that he has no trust in the federal officials and wants to have a written contract. However, after discussion, he said he would consider accepting a written description if Ringen and Prosecuting Attorney Dan Bigelow review it and find it satisfactory.
"I want a binding agreement," he said. "A handshake doesn't cut it any more."
Mooers said he is still upset that ownership of the new dike is going to the Fish and Wildlife Service and not the diking district.
When the dike was originally constructed, he said, property owners deeded land to the Corps, which built the dike and subsequently deeded the land to the diking district. That should happen again, he said.
Without that ownership, the diking district technically can't go on the property," he said. "It leaves a whole lot of problems for down the road."
Gibbons responded that the terms of the habitat enhancement funding made it expedient that only federal agencies be involved. If the diking district had been a partner, she said, it would have been responsible for a share of the local 35 percent match for the project, which will cost over $4 million. The Fish and Wildlife Service is the sponsor, so ownership will pass to that agency.
"From the get-go, the Corps of Engineers has always intended to turn this levee over to the Fish and Wildlife Service," Gibbons said. "That way, it could be 100 percent federally funded."
She added that the Fish and Wildlife Service could make any sort of agreement with the diking district once the project is completed.
Commissioner Mike Backman suggested the parties hold a workshop meeting to go over the issues again; the parties agreed to find a date in early April for the meeting.