By Marcy Stamper
Two dozen private property owners with homes and land at high risk from flash floods and erosion will get some protection from large rock ramparts and grass seeding by the end of June.
Funding for the preventive work — almost $1.2 million — for properties on slopes that burned severely in the Carlton Complex Fire is included in the supplemental state budget signed by Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday (Feb. 19).
The allocations vary depending on the type of intervention, but the money will cover the full costs of the engineered rock berms and grass seed, at no cost to the property owner, according to Craig Nelson, district manager of the Okanogan Conservation District. Most of the affected properties are near French Creek, Frazer Creek, Benson Creek and in the Chiliwist, said Nelson.
Funds remaining after the rock structures and seeding have been completed will be used for deer and livestock fencing, although the fencing is likely to require a financial match from the property owner, said Nelson.
The restoration projects are funded in part by two federal programs, the Emergency Watershed Protection Program and the Environmental Incentives Quality Program.
In August, Engineers from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) surveyed all structures in the area burned in the Carlton Complex Fire — about 3,500 — and identified more than 50 properties at serious risk from flash floods or mudslides, according to Kelly Scott, a design engineer with NRCS.
Slopes where all vegetation burned can slide easily because there are no longer any roots to hold soil in place. On others, the soil itself was so badly burned that it will no longer absorb water, said Nelson.
The scientists found about 45 properties that could benefit from the berms, along with another half dozen where homes could not be protected. Those people were advised to obtain flood insurance or even to move their houses, according to Nelson. Some houses were in the floodplain or too close to the river for any intervention, said Scott.
Another eight or nine property owners on 300 to 400 contiguous acres near French Creek are participating in the seeding program for steep slopes that burned intensely. State agencies are also seeding land they manage in the area, said Nelson.
Soil scientists are hopeful that the low snowpack means that spring runoff will not cause significant damage. “Basically, we have our fingers crossed that the seed will get growing and germinate and won’t get swept off the hillside,” said Nelson.
Engineers have also been working with the Okanogan County Department of Public Works to identify steep areas above culverts where county roads are at risk from flooding. Money in the budget will also cover seeding for these areas, said Nelson.
Once they saw the designs, only 14 of the original 45 property owners wanted the berms, said Nelson.
The fortifications, which are like pyramids constructed from compacted rocks, must be at least 12 feet wide at the top and 15 to 20 feet wide at the base. Some are only 3 or 4 feet tall, but others have to be twice that high to be effective, and at least one would have had to be more than 300 feet long to divert a flash flood, said Nelson.
The berms will be built from 3- to 4-inch rocks, which will be compressed from the top with a steamroller, said Nelson. They are relatively permanent, intended to be in place for at least five years — the period of highest threat after a fire, said Nelson. If a landowner wants to remove the structure once the risk has passed, that person would have to pay to have it dismantled and hauled away, said Nelson.
Some people who elected not to participate objected to having such a massive structure in their front or back yard, and others thought the cost of removal would be too great, said Nelson.
Part of the watershed-protection money has been set aside to rectify problems on the Benson Creek property owned by Michael Sarratt. Because the creek filled with sand and gravel, it is now higher than his yard, said Nelson.
Paying for the work
The federal watershed protection program typically pays 75 percent of the cost. The state money will allow the Conservation District to pick up the remaining 25 percent, said Nelson.
While federal money had been allocated in the fall, engineers were still devising structures for each site. “We had to show landowners 40 different engineered designs,” said Nelson.
Because the rock structures could not be erected after the ground froze, the Conservation District is now waiting to see if Congress appropriates secondary funds, since emergency funds must be used within 120 days of a disaster. If not, the Conservation District will take money now allocated for fencing to make up the difference, said Nelson.
Nationwide, there is a $135-million backlog for these emergency watershed projects, with only $73 million available, and damage from the Carlton Complex is near the bottom of the list, according to Larry Johnson, state conservation engineer with NRCS.
The total cost for the 14 rock structures is $360,000. About $280,000 has already been spent on staff time and property assessments, said Nelson.
The Conservation District is working with another 240 property owners who lost deer and livestock fencing. They have confirmed 180 of those losses and are still making site visits. The Conservation District’s board of directors will determine the proportion of the cost that the property owners will be required to pay, said Nelson.
A small portion of the money in the supplemental budget is for weed control. The money will be provided to the Okanogan County Noxious Weed Office, which will work directly with landowners, said Nelson.
Work will be done in the spring. Money in the supplemental budget must be expended by the end of June.
DNR firefighting costs repaid
The supplemental budget also includes $62.7 million to cover the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR’s) costs of fire suppression from July 2014 through last fall, when the request was submitted. It also includes anticipated costs for fire suppression through the end of this June, according to Janet Pearce, DNR’s communications manager.
The allocation fills DNR’s total request to the Legislature for fire suppression — fire crews, air resources, fire camp costs and private contractors, said Pearce.
DNR is still seeking an increase for additional future firefighting capacity, such as personnel, training, and equipment, in the operating budget, said Pearce. The Legislature is still working on the budget.