By Marcy Stamper
Steve Taylor, a professional river guide who has logged hundreds of thousands of miles on local rivers, was concerned about the impact on the Methow River when a torrent of mud and water cascaded down hillsides last month, destroying a dozen houses.
With several of the damaged properties perched just above the river, Taylor worried about the nature of the debris that could have landed in the water.
Taylor, who lives outside Twisp, took his first trip down the river just days after the slide and was sickened to find tires, cans of paint, a large oil tank and the splintered remnants of a yurt. “I knew it had to have impacted the river, but I didn’t realize there’d be that much human garbage,” he said.
The day after the rainstorm that unleashed the mudslides, the river doubled in volume, creating a current strong enough to carry parts of houses several miles downstream, said Taylor. Now that the river level has dropped again, most of the debris has settled.
Seeing an opportunity to remove the rubble before autumn rains raise the river level again, Taylor made dozens of calls to state agencies and salmon recovery organizations to try to launch a clean-up effort. He also sent word to others in the river-recreation community to recruit volunteers with boats and navigational skills.
The Methow Conservancy lent Taylor a GPS device to map the location of the debris. The majority is along a 10-mile stretch from Benson Creek to Libby Creek, where the three largest slides occurred.
Taylor’s efforts paid off. On Monday (Sept. 8), two crews from the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC), an environmental youth training and development program with the state Department of Ecology, arrived in the Methow Valley to begin collecting the trash.
“We’ve been wandering around on the mudflats picking up debris,” said Chris Johnson, president of the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation, who is helping coordinate the clean-up. “Sixteen people, three and a half hours, one and a half trailers full of debris. We’ll be back at it tomorrow,” Johnson said on Monday evening.
Lots of junk
On his third river trip last week, Taylor showed a reporter where a debris flow had altered the riverbank, depositing a dense layer of mud and rocks and even creating some new rapids.
“That’s one bonus,” said Taylor, guiding his boat through a short stretch of whitewater. “That’s kind of a fun rapid.”
But other changes were less encouraging. WCC crews found a toaster oven, a chair, a car bumper, and lots of PVC pipe and wood studded with nails, said Johnson. The most difficult thing to pull out of the river was a 22-foot culvert clogged with mud. Many of the items were scattered along the shoreline, but some were resting on the riverbed under the shallow water.
Most of the debris appeared to be inert—that is, wood or metal—but the clean-up crew will be on the lookout for anything that could be hazardous, according to Joye Redfield-
Wilder, public information manager for Ecology. If anything looks potentially hazardous, Ecology will bring in a spill-response team to take samples, she said.
Johnson estimated that the crew would spend a week collecting debris from the river. Once that project is done, the conservation crews, who are part of a state emergency-response network, will help rebuild fences and irrigation ditches damaged in the fire or mudslides.
Many groups helped streamline the process. The Washington Department of Natural Resources has agreed to pay for disposal and dumpsters, Okanogan County is waiving fees at the landfill, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has helped expedite any necessary permits, said Johnson. Numerous property owners along the river provided access for the crews and trailers.
“This is my neighborhood,” said Taylor, hoisting a heavy can of solvent, the lid still secure, into his boat. “It breaks my heart, seeing this.”