By Marcy Stamper

Risks from erosion, mudslides and floods remain high in the Benson Creek watershed, which was ravaged by wildfire and floods almost two years ago. Federal and state agency officials and conservation planners are exploring options for water storage and irrigation, ecological restoration, and other measures to reduce these risks, the Benson Creek Watershed Group learned on Thursday (Feb. 18).

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will repair the spillway on the uppermost of five dams in the watershed in April or May, once the area is accessible, according to their environmental engineer. That lake, called Chalfa Dam, will hold water at the top of watershed, while the lake below it will become a wetland, he said.

A group of irrigators on Benson Creek has been comparing repairing damaged pipes or switching to wells, but several local residents who attended the meeting said that drilling wells would never provide enough water for irrigation in the dry canyon.

Others raised concerns about the sediment accumulating in culverts and in Benson Creek, which they say carries silt to the Methow River.

Upper Finley Canyon, above the dams and the Benson Creek watershed, burned more severely than any area burned by the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, according to Terri Williams, a conservation planner with the Okanogan Conservation District. Williams said the area with severe fire impacts is “humongous,” some 10 miles long. Reseeding, replanting and restoring it would take a huge amount of money, which remains uncertain in the proposed state budget, she said.

“It’s likely if there is a good, substantial rain up there, the soil will move. That’s what we’re here to talk about,” she told the group.

Much of the severely burned area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and many sections are too steep to replant, according to Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu. The Forest Service has done some seeding to control invasive weeds and has replanted flatter areas with trees, but some areas are too steep for people to work there safely, he said.

Officials from WDFW and the Forest Service, as well as area residents, expressed interest in establishing beaver dams to help with water storage and reduce the risk of erosion high in the watershed.

“I’m totally with you — I’ve been talking to our department,” said Lynda Hofmann, a habitat biologist with WDFW. “But funding is always an issue.”

To establish beaver dams, scientists would have to target areas higher in the drainage, because the severe fire and flood took out the beaver dams and their food source, said Liu.

The Conservation District is looking for money for restoration and to protect the entire watershed from erosion, said Williams. She acknowledged that the area remains unstable after the fire and flood and that there are limits to what can be done after a natural disaster of that magnitude.

“We’re holding these meetings because the danger is high. You need to be prepared and take actions so people don’t die,” said Williams.