By Marcy Stamper
A spate of warm weather has been causing streams to overflow their banks and carve new channels, making some roads impassable and flooding private property around the valley.
Some driveways, where people say they haven’t seen water for decades — if ever — have turned into ponds.
Some of the runoff appears to be connected with wildfires, where areas with little vegetation are experiencing increased erosion. But some is simply a result of a higher-than-normal snowpack and a rapid snowmelt, according to county and state officials.
Stream flows are definitely up, said Steve Harris, acting wildfire and forest practices assistant region manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Recent warm temperatures have melted the snow faster than it can percolate into the soil, filling streams instead, he said.
The potential for DNR’s biggest concern — a rain-on-snow event — has decreased, since most snow at lower elevations has melted, said Harris.
County and state road crews have been unclogging culverts and clearing debris from streams. But on private property, some people feel like they are on their own.
On Texas Creek, Ron and Cheryl Race have been combating the aftermath of the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. Flash floods damaged their yard and property twice last year. This spring, the surging creek has spread across their property as it carved channels across a wide area. “It could be where the water used to run 40 years ago,” said Cheryl.
Last week, the creek, normally a gentle water feature about 2 feet wide and a few inches deep, was flowing fast and carrying mud and silt and gouging part of the Races’ lawn.
“The water has been swirling around before entering the culvert — that shows it’s backing up,” said Cheryl on Wednesday (April 6), indicating a churning pool of muddy water. Indeed, on Saturday night (April 9) the culvert became completely clogged and the creek coursed over their elevated driveway, creating a deep fissure several feet wide.
A flood-diversion dike and culvert were installed last summer at the Race home through a federal flood-prevention program. Their house is buttressed with ecology blocks and does not appear to be threatened by the high water. But a footbridge they erected after last year’s flooding was also at risk as the creek scoured the soil around the concrete footings.
Creeks throughout the watershed have been creating new channels since the fires, said Lynda Hofmann, a habitat biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “Until the fires, they rarely did this — that’s why you need to give water room to move,” she said.
The Races hailed the generosity of people from the community who helped fill 1,000 sandbags and brought sandwiches and food last Thursday, and another group who stayed through the night after their driveway was breached on Saturday. “To see people come, who didn’t even know us, it was so humbling,” said Cheryl.
They also praised the Okanogan Conservation District for its help erecting the protective barriers. “Hands down, they did a superb job,” said Ron.
But when a representative from the conservation district assessed the situation this year, he explained that a property owner is entitled to help from the federal program only twice, said Cheryl. “He suggested we wait until it’s catastrophic,” she said.
But the Races questioned the role of county and state agencies. Cheryl said she wished various land managers would put their heads together to brainstorm a solution. Ron wondered who was responsible for maintaining streams.
Pointing at a wide area now under water, Ron said the regular channel of Texas Creek had filled with so much sediment that the creek found a new low spot on what had been an access road. He had been trying to coax the water back into the main channel.
The county assists private property owners on a case-by-case basis, said Okanogan County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall. The county will help people get out of harm’s way, but can’t provide county equipment to fix or rebuild things, nor provide rock or fill, he said.
DNR’s forest practices district manager has also been assessing the conditions at Texas Creek, where state land burned and where salvage logging took place last year, said Harris.
Streams have reworked channels, which Harris said was most likely related to the fire. “Streams find more channels when there is no vegetation,” he said. As banks become less stable from a lack of vegetation, the high flows cut into the banks and streams pick up sediment.
While the Races suspect that some of their problems may have been caused by the salvage logging, DNR foresters do not see a cause and effect between the logging and increased flow, said Harris. After the logging, DNR removed some culverts in the upper watershed to encourage the water to follow a more natural channel, said Harris.
Ron said he spent the week digging and moving rocks several times a day to try to keep the culvert clear. “Every morning, I’m surprised what the creek is doing,” he said.
“My frustration is, I’m doing what I need to do to protect what I have,” said Ron. “The real issue is, you’re not supposed to dig in the creek. So, how — as a homeowner — can you protect your home and land?”
Goodall also stopped by the Races’ property and traveled further up Texas Creek. He said the water appeared to be natural runoff.
“Culverts are a hard thing to swallow. They’re great for normal passage but, in storms and fires, debris backs up behind the culvert and water goes over the road and erodes it, affecting people below,” said Goodall.
“We need new answers and ways for the times,” said Cheryl. “Things have changed. The weather has changed.”
“They said there’d be more water after the fire, and there is,” said Hofmann.
Permits and emergencies
People typically need permits before doing any work in a creek, although permits differ depending on the water body.
WDFW regulates fish-bearing streams and lakes, according to Hofmann. Other agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington Department of Ecology, regulate water quality.
“If you’re working in a stream, you need permits for shoreline and in-water work,” said Joye Redfield-Wilder, public information manager for Ecology. There are emergency procedures that allow people to protect their home, she said.
Part of the permitting process includes making sure that interventions in one area won’t create problems up or downstream, said Redfield-Wilder.
The Okanogan County Planning Department is the fist stop in a situation like this, said Planning Director Perry Huston. “We can decide if it’s an emergency or not, and if a permit is necessary. They should at least contact us about it,” he said.
“Nobody expects anyone to wait while the boulder is crashing through their living room,” said Huston. “There’s almost always a process to deal with it in an emergency.”
County road crews have made temporary repairs on Frost Road off Twisp River Road, which has been closed for more than a week since heavy runoff created huge craters and took out a cattle guard.
County engineers had planned to repair the road after things dried out, but too many people didn’t have access to their homes, so this week Okanogan County Public Works crews came up with a temporary solution, according to County Engineer Josh Thomson.
Crews replaced an old concrete pipe with an open ditch and diverted water into the ditch, from where it drains into adjacent fields. Thomson said it’s too soon to say what the permanent solution will be, since the county has to consult with other agencies including WDFW and Ecology.
Residents on the lower portion of the road now have access to their driveways, but damage further up the road has not been repaired and the road remains closed, said Thomson.
Poorman Creek Cutoff Road is closed because of water over the roadway near the Poorman Creek junction, after water blocked the creek and flooded private property. The county will have to obtain permits to work in the creek before it can repair the road, said Thomson.
Road crews worked with WDFW to remove debris from Beaver Creek, which had backed up across Upper Beaver Creek Road in several places, said Thomson. There is minor damage but the road is open.
Elbow Coulee Road has been reopened.