SHELTON, Wash. - When the Skokomish River floods, Mark and Laurie Sleeper can watch salmon swimming through their front yard. They move their six kids to drier ground and try to keep their possessions from floating away. In lesser floods, the Sleepers park their car on the side of the highway and wade home.
Although this valley on Washington's
Olympic Peninsula has a history of flooding, the floods are now
deeper and more frequent. The five-month rainy season of 1994
produced the worst floods in the documented history of the river,
according to statistics from the United States Geological Survey.
The second worst were in 1991, the third worst in 1993. So far this
1995-96 season, valley residents have had 20 days of flood
"It seems like every year you say,
"Well, it can't get any worse anyhow." And then it does," says Mark
Sleeper, standing in front of a permanent water mark halfway up his
About a fourth of the 180 homes in
the Skokomish Valley should expect flooding if it rains four inches
within a 24-hour period, or continuously for several days, says
Charles Toal of Washington's Department of
While the Skokomish Valley has suffered
the worst floods in the state, weather experts say floods are
becoming more common throughout the Pacific Northwest. That's due
in part to heavier than usual rains.
environmentalists say the causes aren't natural. They single out
logging, urban sprawl, dikes and dams that have destroyed the
Blowouts and landslides
South Fork of the Skokomish River, erosion from blown-out logging
roads and deforested hillsides has built up sediment in the
riverbed to more than three feet, says David Dawdry, a hydrologist
from San Francisco. That means the river can't contain as much
water, so it floods. The floods are bad for salmon, as well as
humans. Rushing floodwaters and silt sometimes destroy salmon egg
A topographic map of the headwaters of the
South Fork reveals a chaotic web of dirt roads cut into steep
slopes. Many of these roads have deteriorated into weather-ravaged
erosion zones with little or no chance of recovery. In one flight
last spring over Vance Creek, a tributary of the Skokomish, the
Department of Ecology counted 100 new road
Driving up a Forest Service road, Guy
Parsons of the Skokomish Watershed Coalition points out landslides
and road collapses throughout the drainage. He stops by an
impassable pit of mud and shakes his head.
won't see anybody taking action on any of these issues - the loss
of soils, the destruction of streams, all these road failures
you're seeing up here - because that would amount to admitting to
some serious mismanagement in the past."
Parsons' volunteer group has urged the Forest
Service to issue a moratorium on any more logging in the watershed
until hills are stabilized. The agency has
The majority of the logging in the area
has been conducted by Simpson Timber, the second richest
corporation in Washington, with estimated sales of more than $1
billion per year. Simpson owns much of the private land in the
South Fork area and has logged roughly half of its Forest Service
land since 1946 under what is known as a "100-year sustainable
The plan was intended to keep
small logging towns going by combining federal and private lands
into one long-term approach to logging. For the first 40 years of
the plan, the Forest Service paid Simpson to build logging roads on
federal land as part of its sale of publicly owned trees. But now,
the Forest Service is responsible for repairing or closing the
unused, washed-out roads.
"When we were logging
Forest Service land, they weren't maintaining our roads," says
Patty Case, Simpson's public relations director. "Why should we
maintain their roads now?"
As for Simpson's
private land, the company is now writing a plan for Washington
state's Department of Natural Resources to fix or close roads
degrading the watershed. Lisa Lewis of the Forest Service says
Simpson has already fixed some roads in cooperation with the Forest
Critics charge that Simpson's logging
operation was never sustainable, that the company cut too many
trees too quickly. Less than halfway through the 100 years, the
company laid off its local work force and slowed operations. A
Simpson spokesperson says the layoffs resulted from automation, not
overharvest. Whatever the reason, the collapse still stings for
"When I went to work up there,
they told me I had a job for the next 100 years," says Jerry
Twidwell, a former logger who lives in the valley. "Well, it only
lasted 37 years, and then they laid everyone off."
The North Fork: The Lost Fork
Unlike the South Fork, the North Fork is
protected from logging because it runs through Olympic National
Park. The fast-moving water that drains from the snow-capped
glacial peaks of the southeastern Olympic Mountains once made good
spawning grounds for salmon. It also historically flushed out
excess silt and gravel in the main part of the
Things changed dramatically in the 1920s.
The City of Tacoma built two dams in that decade, and one sent
water into a power plant that provided some of the cheapest power
in the country. It also sparked an economic boom which turned
Tacoma into a major industrial port almost overnight. Meanwhile,
silt started to accumulate in the riverbed.
750-member Skokomish tribe has always opposed the hydroelectric
project because of its impact on salmon runs. Tribal members say
the city has never justly compensated them for taking the
In the 1930s, the tribe attempted a
lawsuit which was disallowed in Catch-22 fashion: Their federal
trust status wouldn't allow them to sue Tacoma without backing from
the federal government. The tribe failed in court again in the
1980s, when it tried to sue the Forest Service and Simpson Timber
for damaging elk and salmon habitat.
again, the tribe is joined by the Justice Department, the state of
Washington and several environmental groups such as American
Rivers, Trout Unlimited and Friends of the
At issue is whether the hydroelectric
project needs to be relicensed. Tacoma's 50-year federal license
officially ran out in 1974, and tribal leaders contend that that
license allowed only the flooding of 8.8 acres of federal land -
not the 4,000 acres which the dam's Lake Cushman covers today. City
officials say they've acted legally by renewing the license on an
annual basis since 1974.
The city has offered to
leave 12 percent of the water in the river, but the tribe says that
isn't enough. It wants the city to divert only what is needed to
prevent flooding. The tribe's plan should help flood victims
because releasing more water will help remove the sediment that
clogs river channels.
"We need water back in the
river," insists Vic Martino, the tribe's planner. "The more
sediment that comes down and isn't flushed out, the worse this
problem will get. The riverbed is just filling in, and what's going
to happen is the river's just going to take off. It's going to go
somewhere else, and that could be a catastrophe."
Even if the tribes get what they want, and
Simpson eases its clearcutting, it will be a long road to
restoration of the river, says the Department of Ecology's Toal. He
believes it will take at least two centuries for the Skokomish to
recover, and that flooding will never go
"We're talking about an alluvial plain
here," he says. "It will flood ' But still, it makes sense to work
your way upstream and look at the river's real problems, instead of
just putting a bunch of Band-Aids on it down below."
Ben Jacklet writes
from Seattle, Washington.