It’s too early to say if the new law limiting liability to landowners for river restoration work done on their property will affect the design of large wood structures such as this one on the Methow River. Photo by Marcy Stamper

It’s too early to say if the new law limiting liability to landowners for river restoration work done on their property will affect the design of large wood structures such as this one on the Methow River. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper 

A new law limiting liability for owners of riverfront property who allow habitat projects to be built on their land has not had a major impact on these projects, according to a recent survey of organizations and individuals involved in salmon recovery around the state.

Still, as time goes on, agencies and groups that do river restoration and salmon-recovery work will probably alter their procedures because of the law, according to Joy Juelson, natural resources program manager for the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board. Juelson helped disseminate the survey and analyze the results.

The law, which went into effect in July, specifies five conditions for projects that entail large wood placement to improve habitat and conditions for endangered fish. The law provides liability only for property damage connected with a restoration project, not for personal injury.

More than half of project sponsors are proceeding as usual, while one-quarter are concerned that the law requires them to take additional precautions to protect against lawsuits, according to a summary of the results. Slightly more than half of the engineers and designers polled had changed their designs as a result of the legislation. A smaller number have developed new policies to meet the requirements of the law, said Juelson.

 

Still some confusion

There appears to be considerable confusion about the legislation and how to interpret its requirements, said Juelson. “Most people are still trying to wrap their head around the law,” she said.

The biggest area of confusion is how to interpret the requirement that any wood structure installed in a river be able to withstand a 100-year flood. Juelson said some project sponsors and engineers interpret that to mean that the entire log structure must not shift, while others believe it pertains only to the key pieces.

Some project sponsors believe naturally occurring logjams can be more dangerous because they can take any form and end up anywhere, said Juelson. “Nature’s not doing a risk assessment,” she said.

The state Salmon Recovery Funding Board will analyze the survey responses to inform future activities. The board has funded more than 1,200 restoration projects since it was formed in 1999, according to Brian Abbott, executive coordinator of the Governor’s Salmon Recovery Office. Forty-two of these projects were in the Methow watershed, receiving $5 million in grants out of $332 million statewide.

While there have been no liability problems arising from restoration work, landowners – whose participation is always voluntary – had begun to ask if allowing work on their property puts them at risk, said Abbott. Sponsors, contractors and engineers can still be held liable if a project fails, he said.

The Recreation and Conservation Office, which supports salmon recovery in Washington with grants and administrative assistance, is developing a fact sheet to help explain the liability law and provide basic guidelines to restoration-project sponsors and landowners.

The survey is a first step in assessing the impact and effectiveness of the legislation. At a meeting of the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board implementation team in September, Derek Van Marter, the board’s executive director, urged those involved in river habitat work and salmon recovery to document their experiences with the law to track its effects and keep legislators informed.