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Oct. 24, 2020

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Federal government agrees to fund Cowlitz River sediment survey

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LONGVIEW — Cowlitz County will no longer have to foot the bill to monitor sediment on the Lower Cowlitz River after the Army Corps of Engineers received $870,000 in federal funding this week for the project.

County Chief of Staff Axel Swanson said the federal allocation was exciting and a good step forward after years of the Corps not gathering needed data.

In the past, the Corps has not gotten its requested money to monitor how much sediment is still sluicing off Mount St. Helens after the 1980 eruption and into local waterways, even though the buildup presents flooding danger to downstream communities. Last year, Cowlitz County, the City of Castle Rock, and the Longview, Kelso and Lexington diking districts paid the Corps $110,000 to survey the river.

The survey, which was the first since 2015, found that while flood protection levels along the lower Cowlitz River have remained surprisingly stable, the dam in the Lexington area is no longer at the federally mandated level of protection.

There’s been a 5-foot rise in the river bottom from 2016 to 2019 between Beacon Hill and Lexington where the river curves and constricts at Rocky Point, the report found.

Swanson said the funding will allow not only a basic survey of the river, but a more in-depth LIDAR study and a United States Geological Survey river gage study to get a more detailed image of the river bed and of the height of water flows. LIDAR uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to map topography.

“It gives us a much more complete picture of what’s going on with the river,” Swanson said.

In 2019, The Portland Corps District requested $4.2 million to monitor the river, raise the sediment-retaining dam 23 feet, build other silt-retaining structures upstream of the dam, dredge the Cowlitz River and build a new fish trap below the dam. However, the request was not included in President Donald Trump’s proposed 2021 federal budget.

The commissioners had agreed earlier this summer to once again pay $110,000 for the monitoring survey, but Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler announced in a Monday press release that the federal government has agreed to allocate $870,000 to the project. The funds will not only allow for a river survey, but will pay for predesign work of raising the dam in Lexington. The dam was built in the years just after the eruption to slow the flow of volcanic silt into the river, but it is starting to fill up with sediment and needs to be raised to remain effective.

“Protecting Cowlitz County communities from potentially devastating floods is of extreme importance, and in order to accomplish that goal, we have to adequately monitor the Lower Cowlitz River and buildup of sediment caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens,” Herrera Beutler said in a prepared statement. “I’m grateful to the City of Longview and Cowlitz County for their work to help me secure the funding necessary to help protect homes, businesses, and families from potential life-threatening floods.”

In August, Herrera Beutler wrote to the Trump administration requesting money to monitor the Cowlitz River and raise the sediment-retaining dam on the North Fork of the Toutle River. The original 2021 fiscal year denial would have marked the sixth consecutive fiscal year that the federal government did not fund its volcano-related flood control work obligations.

Swanson said the financial relief in a time of COVID-19 budget stresses is huge.

“That was a hard (funding) decision to make last year before COVID and this year even harder,” Swanson said. “The county was ready to front load the money again, but all the local partners stepped up and helped pay us back last year indicated they were willing to do so again. It would have been a hit to multiple jurisdictions, but an unnecessary hit because the corps should fund it.”

While this was a one-time funding, not an annual promise, Swanson said he feels good that this is a “first step in getting some traction” for annual funding. He said the heightened awareness and support from the local congressional delegation is valuable.

“The idea is to keep the momentum going that we have to get that funding on the budget annually, so we have a good record of data to work with,” he said. “I think everybody is on board with that, so it’s good news.”

Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber in a prepared statement thanked Herrera Beutler and the “entire Congressional delegation for their years-long effort to secure this critical funding to ensure the federal government meets their obligation to protect Southwest Washington communities continuing to live with the aftermath of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption.”

“Their collective work ensures that valuable local funding won’t have to be used to meet this federal responsibility and puts us on a path to receiving annual federal appropriations for sediment monitoring along the Cowlitz River,” he added.

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