Clogged channel sends a river over its bank in Washington

  • Skokomish River Valley in Washington

    Diane Sylvain
  • Frequent flooding means hell and high water for Skokomish residents

    Ben Jacklet

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 warnings.

"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 front door.

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 Ecology.

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.

But many environmentalists say the causes aren't natural. They single out logging, urban sprawl, dikes and dams that have destroyed the region's natural drainages.

South Fork: Blowouts and landslides

On the 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 nests.

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 failures.

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.

"You 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 refused.

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 yield" harvest.

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 Service.

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 valley residents.

"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 river.

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.

The 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 river.

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.

Now, suing 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 Earth.

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 away.

"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.

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