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Tense Whatcom Communities Discuss Flood Prevention

One at a time, community members stepped up to a microphone to confront state, county and city decision-makers with difficult questions about what could have been done to reduce the impact of the mid-November storm.

Street Flood
(TNS) - It had been a little over a week since flooding devastated many Whatcom communities, and emotions were running high at Nooksack Valley High School on Nov. 24. Residents of some of the hardest-hit communities congregated in the auditorium for what would be a three-hourlong community meeting about local flood response.

One at a time, community members stepped up to a microphone to confront state, county and city decision-makers with difficult questions about what could have been done to reduce the impact of the mid-November storm.

A specific frustration was voiced several times, eliciting claps of agreement from the crowd: Why didn't anyone remove sediment — eroded soil and debris — from the Nooksack River? It could have made more room for water to flow through the channel, rather than inundate communities, the commenters insisted.

"Nothing's been done," said one resident, whose home on the outskirts of Sumas flooded nearly two years ago during another storm. The resident said they were told then that there was a "huge" amount of gravel in the river near Everson. After the most recent flooding, the resident expects to pay $500,000 just to make their home livable again.

"This is ridiculous," the resident told the stage of officials at the community meeting. "And I'm sorry, but Everson and Sumas and Lynden and Ferndale, we are not going to be casualties because people are not doing their jobs."

Removing sediment from the Nooksack River has become a contentious topic in Whatcom County, as community members who have lost everything are desperate to see immediate, tangible action to prevent flooding that climate change will make more frequent and severe.

"If you know there are solutions and nobody takes action, that's frustrating for a lot of people," said Kyle Christensen, mayor of Sumas, where an estimated 85% of homes were damaged in the November flooding. He does not believe that climate change is a primary factor in the flooding that has repeatedly battered Sumas. "People can sit back and judge these emotions, but unless you are in that situation where people just lost all their belongings and family heirlooms..."

But the decision to remove sediment from the river is far from simple, say officials, tribal leaders and environmentalists: It could destroy salmon habitat and have unintended consequences on communities downstream.

Plus, some leaders aren't sure it would have made that much of a difference during the mid-November floods, which brought a stunning 2.8 inches of rain over the course of six hours on Sunday, Nov. 14, at Bellingham International Airport. The daily average rainfall is 0.9 inches, three times less, said County Public Works Director Jon Hutchings.

"I don't believe we could have dug enough gravel out of that river to make what happened last week not a flood," said Paula Harris, the county's river and flood manager, at the tense community meeting on Nov. 24.

Her statement was met with indignant yells from the crowd.

A history of sediment removal

The Nooksack River is a special body of water: It carries more sediment than any other river that drains into Puget Sound, Harris said. That's because the river's upper watershed is home to an active volcano, the beloved Mount Baker.

The last time sediment was removed from the river was in the 1990s, by local company Cowden Gravel & Ready Mix. But more stringent regulations caused the company to halt its gravel mining operations in the Nooksack River.

"Getting permits was so hard that we finally had to quit," said Ron Groen, who works for the company and spoke at the Nov. 24 community meeting.

The conversation around removing sediment from the Nooksack River never fully petered out, however, and some Whatcom leaders continue to advocate for the idea.

Sumas Mayor Christensen has been a proponent of removing sediment from the river since he stepped into the elected position in 2017. He believes sediment buildup and a lack of maintenance by humans is the reason that the Nooksack River keeps overflowing. Whatcom County Councilmember Ben Elenbaas has also said he is a proponent of sediment removal.

It's important to recognize that the Nooksack River hasn't always flowed through the channel it currently does, state and tribal officials say. Over the past tens of thousands of years, the river has moved all over the floodplain.

"The watershed divide between the Nooksack River and the streams that go north is a very low-elevation divide," said Doug Allen, manager of the Washington Department of Ecology's Bellingham office. "That's why it can so easily jump north."

Removing gravel

The river's tendency to head north also impacts residents across the border in Canada. Last month, floodwater filled Sumas Lake, which was drained by government officials in the 1920s. The flooding displaced thousands of people and brought demands from some Canadians that Washington control the Nooksack River.

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Whatcom County Councilmember Rud Browne introduced a resolution that would allocate $250,000 of County funding to examine how to remove gravel in dry upland areas near the Nooksack River. He stressed that he did not want to remove any sediment from underwater.

He proposed the same idea in 2019 but wanted to give it one more shot before his term ends in January 2022.

"I see flooding happening next year or the year after," Browne said. "This is sort of the new normal if we don't do something pretty significant, pretty quickly."

Browne's measure was tabled at the Dec. 7 County Council Natural Resources Committee meeting, pending further review from tribes and county flood and river department staff.

Environmental, salmon consequences

The Pacific Northwest's salmon have been struggling for decades, and despite millions of dollars in recovery efforts, the Puget Sound Chinook remains "in crisis," according to the 2020 State of Salmon in Watersheds report.

Loss and degradation of habitat is the biggest threat to salmon in today's world, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are concerns that removing sediment from the Nooksack River would be destructive to crucial spawning grounds for the fish — salmon lay their eggs in the riverbed, in nests called redds.

Certain types of sediment removal have historically been "utterly destructive to salmon spawning habitat," said David Radabaugh, Northwest region floodplain management specialist at the state Department of Ecology.

Even if government officials choose to remove sediment from gravel bars that are not underwater at the time of harvest, there could be negative impacts on fish habitat, said Ned Currence, fisheries and resource protection program manager for the Nooksack Indian Tribe. The river could adjust for changed bed morphology and gravel could rearrange in a way that leads to salmon egg loss.

"From time immemorial, the tribes have relied on that stock," said George Swanaset Jr., the Nooksack Indian Tribe's natural and cultural resources director. "The flooding is unfortunate, and a lot of people were negatively affected, but if they start dredging everything, the tribes will take the brunt again."

He is also concerned that sediment removal could uncover the remains of tribal villages that ran all the way down the Nooksack River between Ferndale and Deming.

"We don't want our historical sites exposed or ancestral remains ending up on someone's mantle in their house," Swanaset Jr. said.

Bellingham-based environmental nonprofit RE Sources chimed in to oppose sediment removal from the Nooksack River as well, sending a letter to County Council on Monday, Dec. 6, in response to Councilmember Browne's proposal to explore sediment removal in the Nooksack River.

Senior Environmental Advocate Ander Russell said that the case studies Browne cited in his proposal were too different from the Nooksack River to be meaningful examples of success. The examples were either completely differently hydrologically or were only theoretical, Russell wrote in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Tribes object to salmon impact

The RE Sources letter also points to an unsuccessful attempt in 2013 to extract gravel and sediment from a portion of the Nooksack River. That pilot effort did not move forward after it was met with concerns from state and tribal officials. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife commented that removing the 7,000 cubic yards of sediment proposed in the 2013 project would "constitute very little flood control benefit," particularly given the potential impacts to fish, sediment and water quality, according to RE Sources' recent letter.

The Lummi Nation also sent a letter to County Council on Tuesday, Dec. 7, in response to Browne's sediment removal proposal, saying that the Tribe was not consulted and doesn't support floodplain gravel mining at this time.

For the Nooksack Indian Tribe to even consider sediment removal as an option, Currence said there would have to be no impact on salmon whatsoever.

"We would want it to be fully mitigated to where there would be no impacts to treaty resources," Currence said. The U.S. government used treaties to acquire Tribal lands and resources, forcing many Washington Tribes to cede much of their lands but reserving their right to fish, hunt and gather in their traditional places, according to the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

"We don't think that will be easy to do," Currence continued. "And we don't think it will be that effective."

Sediment keeps moving

Currence is right: Removing sediment from the Nooksack River isn't as straightforward as it sounds. It would require a slew of permits from the state and federal government and likely entail a federal environmental impact statement, a detailed and rigorous evaluation of a project's environmental consequences.

Sediment removal also wouldn't be a one-and-done deal, Radabaugh said. Mount Baker will keep sending sediment down into the Nooksack River each year, requiring the work to be done over and over again.

"Suddenly we are talking a very big project," he said.

State officials also worry that interfering with the river could have unforeseen impacts downstream. If the water is prohibited from going north toward Sumas, would it mean more water and therefore more flooding in places downstream such as Ferndale and Lummi Nation?

"It's all cause and effect," Allen with the Department of Ecology said. "If you fix one thing, you might cause something else."

Other solutions

As Whatcom residents seek near-term solutions in high flood-risk areas, state, local and tribal officials point to other flood control options. That includes elevating homes, revamping land-use policies to discourage people from building in floodplains and enhancing emergency preparedness and response.

If the Nov. 24 community meeting is any indication, sediment removal will not leave the public discourse any time soon. Whatcom Public Works Director Hutchings stepped forward at one point and bluntly gave his take to the audience.

"I just want to say out loud for every one of you to hear that I am very, very aware of the focus on dredging," Hutchings said. "Because of its recurrence as a theme over the last couple of years, there's a group of folks that have worked on that topic, on that as a solution."

"I can just say out loud that it is definitely part of river management. What it isn't is the panacea," he continued. "It's not a silver bullet. It's not possible to put all of those floodwaters even in a dredged river and prevent flooding from happening."


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