Wahkiakum dairy struggles with flooding
“You think you are on the road, but you start to question yourself”
November 16, 2023
Flooding has always been part of the landscape for Gary Burkhalter, who grew up dairy farming with his parents in Grays River. It’s work he continues to do with his wife Susan, along with their children, and includes their grown son, Austin.
“Flooding has been here and always will be here,” Burkhalter said.
While this natural occurrence really only causes problems once or twice a year, it can be disruptive to all who live and in the Burkhalters’ case, work, in the area.
Burkhalter Dairy is located on Altoona Road as it begins a slow curve to the right, not too far from the old Rosburg Store. It sits above their pasture lands, which are bisected by the Grays River in the valley below.
Gary and Susan live along Barr Road, which turns off to the left not far from the dairy. Austin, who is a dairy man like his father and grandfather before him, lives with his own family across the way.
The cows move from one place to another in select areas on their 200 acres, while silage and hay are grown on the rest.
The Burkhalters stopped to talk to me one Sunday recently about flooding in the Grays River Valley. Depositing spoils in Grays Bay as part of a program to deepen the shipping channel in the Columbia River, and shifting ideas about logging are two reasons some people living in the area believe flooding problems are getting worse.
“With this valley being narrow, and a short river, your floods are quick to come,” Burkhalter explained. “Not like on the Chehalis River where they know it’s coming, and they’ve got 12 hours or 16 hours to prepare.”
“Here there’s really not much of a warning system,” he added. “It’s a couple hours and it can be up quick. I guess on the flip side, it does go down quick, because it’s such a short river.”
Flooding can bring in huge amounts of sediment, Burkhalter explained. Sediment covers their fields and grass, and causes issues with production the following year. It brings debris; driftwood, logs, more.
“This last winter it flooded but not much driftwood was brought in. The year before, we spent a good two weeks clearing fields of debris,” he said.
One of the worst floods he remembers was in 1996.
“My fields down here were covered by a foot of mud. I don’t know if there was a big slide that year that contributed to all that mud, but anytime you saw a blackberry bush or some type of brush along the road, it would slow all the water and drop all this sediment behind,” Burkhalter said. “The sediment is like the bottom of a mud puddle. You know how it is slimy, but it dries out, and as soon as it gets wet it gets slippery and slimy again. When you get that much sediment like that it’s hard to do anything with it. You’ve got to wait a year or so before you till it up.”
This leads to one theory on the Westend about what is impacting their communities. More logging and less time between rotations.
The hills, they assert, do not have the holding capacity that they used to for all that water, and it is now draining more easily into the valley, sometimes bringing the sediment with it.
The second theory involves the silting in of Grays Bay from dredge spoils, which isn’t helping.
“The logging has made it so happens faster,” Austin said of the flooding, “and the bay has made it so it lasts longer. It can’t get out fast enough, because it’s plugged.”
All of this means a potential for bigger flood events but it is also causing more erosion on the Grays River, changing the landscape.
“There is a lot more erosion on the river than we’ve ever seen before,” Burkhalter said. “Instead of the river going down the channel, it starts to bounce and eat big huge pieces of our land out.
We’ve lost acres up Grays River there. A lot of that is because the river has filled in and so then instead of the energy going down the center of the river, it tends to go to the sides.”
“This is typically all mud flats down here,” he added. “This is tidal. But we are starting to see rocks show up down here that you usually see upriver. It’s starting to work it’s way all the way down the system.”
Burkhalter described a swath of trees along the river, farther upstream. Big alders, cottonwood.
“Most of them have gone now,” he said. “They fell. The river has taken them. It starts eating them out, they fall in. Then you have a big tree sitting in the river, and pretty soon the water bounces to the other side, and starts eating stuff out, and then you get a tree falling, It’s just ping ponging back and forth.”
Floods at the end of October or November are dangerous for livestock, Burkhalter said, because cows are sometimes still out in the pasture, grazing.
“You really have to pay attention, to try to get them up to higher ground before,” he added.
“Having cattle in the flood plain this time of year gets a little dicey. If they get stranded out there they are hard to move.”
Sometimes they get caught between the river and a rising water table that forms a ring around them.
“As water comes up, everything gets covered,” Burkhalter said. “But cows, if they are still on pasture go out toward the river where there is grass and then they are stranded. That becomes a challenge. If you’ve ever tried to chase cows through water, it’s like no, I don’t want to go through water, I want to stay here where it’s dry.”
But he says, if they stay there, the flood can come up and they risk getting swept down river.
Sometimes too, as a dairy farmer, he will rise in the wee hours of the morning to realize it’s flooding. Again comes the hurry to move the animals.
“We bring hay out to them, but they aren’t interested,” Burkhalter said. “I’m full. I’ve been eating all day. I don’t want to follow you.”
But their concerns aren’t limited to the livestock. Getting their product in and out will always be a concern living where they do. On those big flood days, it’s all about getting the timing right.
“Living on Barr Road, we have to cross the flood plain to get to the dairy,” Burkhalter said. “We have to kind of plan ahead if it’s going to flood or not, and try to be over there.”
“Any time there is high water and it’s dark out, it’s dangerous and disorienting, especially if there is a current. You think you are on the road, but you start to question yourself,” Burkhalter said.
“I mean if you go off the road, it’s going to be end game for you,” he said, speaking of Barr Road. “We’re talking 10 feet fall off of the road. It’s fairly narrow down there, with a ditch on each side and the road is quite a bit higher. If you’ve got four feet of water on the road, you’ve got another eight feet…”
“We try not to have to go through it if we can avoid it,” he said.
Thankfully, Austin has access to what is affectionately referred to as The Beast, a vehicle that belongs to the Grays River Fire Department and has been a great help to many people in the community during high water.
The dairy’s milk is picked up every other day and the Burkhalters spend a lot of time communicating with the driver arriving with the milk tanker truck.
“We make a decision. Can he make it? Can he not make it? Or you better come early,” Burkhalter said.
“Or later in the day,” Austin added.
Fortunately, the dairy has enough holding capacity in their tanks to go three days if they need to, giving them a bit of a buffer.
“You’ve seen the big Milky Way trucks with the big tanks?” Burkhalter asked.
“I remember when I was working for my mom and dad still,” he said. “They came through. It was daylight. It was pretty deep.”
“The milk trunk had a front tank and a bad tank,” he continued. “As he is going through the water, his back tank started to float sideways, Scared everybody pretty good.”
“Scared him,” I said.
“Yeah, he hit the gas,” Burkhalter laughed.
“I remember one time the milk truck spent two days over here,” he added. “There was water [to the west] across Seal River so you could go back there and there was a slide on Highway 4 [to the east] so you couldn’t go back that way.”
While the fellow may have spent two days living in his milk truck, the Burkhalters fed him and made sure he had what he heeded.
The garbage truck got stuck one time and the driver had to leave it in the barn and go for a ride in The Beast, the Burkhalters said. Another time, the mail lady got stuck. She’d been out delivering when it was clear, but couldn’t get back. Her son arrived in a dump truck to pick her up.
People don’t realize when they are out there sometimes that the water has come up, they said.
Or people go to work and come back and realized they can’t get home.
Sometimes students who live in the area are forced to miss school and other times the school has to worry about getting the kids home.
“Fortunately, there is is a hydrograph meter on the internet and a spot by the covered bridge.
You can see what the flood stage is up to. You can tell if it’s flooding up there it is going to come down here in two hours,” Austin said.
One of the worst things that can happen is when the tide comes up, and so does the wind.
“A couple years ago, there was a bad rain event and wind event,” Austin said. “Knocked down the power line down there on the straight stretch of Altoona Road, which was all flooded, so everybody was out of power. We had to get the PUD out there through the flood water to have them repair it.”
“If they said, we’ll wait till the water goes down, then it would have been a day or two later,” Austin added.
“That really affects us with milking the cows because without electricity, we can’t,” Burkhalter said. “Electricity is pretty important. If you get a flood event and a wind event and it knocks out the power, that can be a real pickle.”
This story is part of a series on the Grays Bay floods. For more stories and pictures, visit http://www.waheagle.com.