Rising tide: Residents of the Lower Columbia estuary confront a shifting
A local family adapts to an unwelcome yearly visitor
September 28, 2023
Over the years, flooding has become an increasing problem for people in the Westend of Wahkiakum County. It was hard to imagine when I drove up to Nick and Dee Nikkila's home in Deep River on a beautiful late summer day last week, but Nick had evidence.
Not long after sitting down to talk to the pair about what they were seeing on their property, Nick pulled up a video he made and posted on Youtube.
You can see high water covering Wirkkala Road, the long drive to the Nikkila house, and how Nick navigates his way from one point to the other in his truck.
Lake Nikkila they call it. Smart, active, and social, the pair weather their troubles with humor.
Nick has pretty much mastered the maneuver in his truck, and knows exactly where his driveway meets the road, but others won't risk it.
"It's a bit of a guessing game," he said. "When the water is clear, it's not too bad, but when it's real turbid it's pretty difficult to see."
It wouldn't take much to end up in the ditch.
Sometimes it just means parking a car where West Deep River Road meets Wirkkala Road, and rowing to and from the house.
"When I was a kid, I lived just a mile or so up the road and was down here quite a bit visiting the Anderson house," he said. "They had high water, but not like what we are getting now."
Nikkila first approached Wahkiakum County Commissioners, he said, about 15 years ago. More recently he showed them the video.
"Is this really how you expect citizens of Wahkiakum County to live?" he wondered. "That was actually the start of what is hopefully moving in the right direction now."
Their first winter in the house, Dee said, there was 20 inches of snow in December followed by five inches of rain in one day.
Lake Nikkila stuck around for some 70 days that year.
"It's been difficult because I didn't expect that," Dee said. "When we bought the property, our friend told us it might flood maybe one day a year, and then the first year that happened."
"I don't know if I've ever forgiven him," she added, laughing, "but he's a good guy. He wanted us here."
The impacts are myriad. The have already had their driveway raised and may need to do it again soon. Their hybrid vehicle shuts off as soon as it comes in contact with water, so their truck is the only vehicle that can manage the high water. That comes at a cost too, with continual damage to the brakes and calipers, which need repair or replacement every year. Nick's shop dropped a foot on one end, and he's currently trying to figure out how to repair that.
They are stranded by really high water, sometimes for days, and they've learned to shop for the eventuality, keeping frozen bread and milk on hand, and whatever else they might need. A backup generator provides power if necessary, though Nick is quick to praise Wahkiakum PUD for keeping that need to a minimum.
"Most times, like this last winter, which was not a bad winter at all, I think we only had maybe four events, or flooding over Wirkkala Road and the driveway," Nick said. "Usually within three days or so, it's abated to the point where there is no water over Wirkkala Road. Now our field, it will be flooded for most of the winter, the way it works. That bothers me in the sense that if I wanted a calf or something I couldn't. But believe me in the scheme of things that's not a big deal. It's really access is the big deal."
"Everybody around here knows it's going to happen," Dee said. "They just don't come to visit.
"The only thing that worries me is we're up in our 70s. If you ever need an ambulance, how is it going to get us out? I do worry about that. Not to the point where you're scared to death, but I want to know I can get in and out when I need to."
"You'd also like to have people come over once in a while, when it's flooded you can't," Nick said. "You can't expect them to be able to come in and out once it's dark if you can't manage it."
"People will call and ask, what's the water like? If they want to come over," Dee said. "And we have to say, don't come. Don't come over because you're not going to be able to get out."
"I don't always have the sheets changed upstairs," she added with a laugh, "I have to do the laundry pretty quick."
Nick says most of their problems derive from rainfall and runoff. A nearby culvert is not big enough to handle the volume of water they are seeing, and further down the road, closer to where once stood the old town of Deep River, there is talk of replacing the current undersized tide gates with bigger ones.
If that doesn't abate the situation at the Nikkila's property, the culvert may be removed and a 32 foot bridge, where one once stood, might go back in.
That helped to prevent the flooding," Nick said, "but someone came along and said we don't want to have a bridge, it's hard to maintain."
For now, he's taking a "wait and see attitude."
In the meantime, he may consider continuing his lyrical efforts. During the pandemic, he wrote a song in honor of a one time county assessor.
"My house like me is getting old,
but he says it's worth more than gold.
This is awful, awful, bitter news.
I've got the assessor blues.
When the rains are coming down,
I'm afraid that I might drown.
My fields and road become a lake,
you'd think he'd give me a break,
But no, he says I must pay more
'cause now I'm living on a lake shore.
This is awful, awful news.
I've got the assessor blues."
To see the high water that Nick Nikkila navigates on a bad day in Deep River, visit our website: http://www.waheagle.com