YAKIMA, Wash. -- A fast approaching spring with plenty of snow left to melt means city and county officials will be driving out virtually every day to check the flows of two problematic creeks in West Valley.
Yakima County water resources division manager Terry Keenhan said nowhere else in Yakima sees more flood damage than the areas near where Shaw and Wide Hollow creeks converge. Concerned residents began meeting with officials in 2008 and helped push the county to find a solution, but multiple delays have kept a $3.165 million flood reduction project led by Cliff Bennett from becoming a reality.
“It’s a strong desire in the county to get this done,” said Bennett, a water resources specialist with the county’s flood control zone district. “We’ve invested a lot of time. We’ve invested a lot of money in it at this point in time, so we’re pretty committed to say we’re going to do it for the folks out there.”
It would solve the problems new 2012 flood maps created for Dan Dougherty, who’s lived in his home near Viola and 72nd avenues since 1981. He disputes the decision to put his two-acre property and others into a floodway, noting elevation changes on different maps. He also said he wasn’t affected by the floods of 1996 and 2017.
Dougherty’s property and 246 other residences — plus 246 future parcels — would be removed from the floodplain if the project is completed, saving landowners an average of $2,000 annually in flood insurance costs. The changes would also allow for new development, and Dougherty believes it could raise property values significantly.
“Everybody that I know of that’s in a floodplain has gotten notification from FEMA that their flood insurance, whatever it is, will be going up 10 to 15 percent,” Dougherty said.
Bennett said after a longer-than-expected design process, the county must still clear several hurdles posed by land acquisitions and permitting through the Army Corps of Engineers. He’s hopeful that could be completed sometime next year, then three months of construction would be needed to eliminate an 8,600 feet stretch of Shaw Creek to create a 3,100-foot new channel corridor and treat 6,000 feet of Wide Hollow Creek with some slight modifications to the channel.
A complicated process
Bennett and Keenhan said most area residents fully support the county’s plans, and an environmental assessment released in December 2015 proposed a schedule with construction in late 2016 and early 2017.
But even with wide-ranging consensus from the community and several agencies offering support, such an extensive project still must meet a wide array of standards. Washington Emergency Management division manager Casey Broom said the state’s complex and comprehensive environmental regulations often cause delays to ensure the protection of natural resources.
Several agencies coordinated with the county on an extensive design process focused on moving Shaw Creek from a hillside channel up above Midvale Road and down along 80th Avenue to what the county believes was its historic channel. Keenhan said his analysis of historic pictures shows before at least 1947 but possibly back in the 1920s, the creek cut southeast behind the baseball fields northwest of Cottonwood Elementary and eventually flowed into Wide Hollow Creek.
To accommodate all that extra water during high flows, the county decided to build new bridges and excavate the creek’s channel. However, a mistake by a consultant forced the county to rethink its plans of modifying just one of the two bridges on Wide Hollow Road
“When we went out and observed the flooding, we went back to the consultant and said, ‘it’s not behaving the way you said it was going to behave,’” Keenhan said. “Then we discovered this error in our consultant’s work and so then we needed to replace two bridges.”
By that time, the rising cost of bridges made it impractical to replace either one, so the county elected to build box culverts for a third of the cost. Washington emergency management mitigation and recovery section manager Stacey McClain said the culverts would be more effective than bridges in reducing floods.
Along with the design delays, Bennett said the county also faced some difficulties in acquisitions and permitting that are still ongoing and not uncommon for large projects. The task of moving a stream always carried a lot of unknowns, since it’s something the county had never done before.
Construction efforts require permission forms signed by 68 different landowners to work on their property, and the county hasn’t always found cooperation in its efforts to acquire 11 parcels from six different landowners for the relocation channel. Bennett said no one will need to move, but the county plans to hire a real estate firm and expects that process to take at least another year.
Design work and permitting through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have been completed at a cost of a little more than $700,000, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with the county on its pre-application process. Corps biologist David Moore said this is the largest current project in the region and he expects permitting to take about a year after the application is submitted, which Bennett said should happen soon.
“You’d think that with the big environmental assessment that you’d get through a lot of it, but that covered the archaeology, it covered the wetlands surveys and it covered all the stuff in NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act),” Bennett said. “Then we have to go through a bunch of permitting with the Corps of Engineers and the city and the county and we’re finding that’s like a two-year process in itself.”
Additional complications could arise from the fact that construction can’t be done during high spring flows, so Bennett anticipates it would probably begin in the fall. Wildlife department biologist Eric Bartrand added work on the creek can’t be done during certain times of the year to protect fish.
“I’ve seen a lot of these flood projects take numbers of years to develop, but I think this one probably is the most drawn out so far,” Bartrand said. “Not unexpected. We knew that there would be probably some people that were attached to the creek and to the values that they felt that it brought.”
Shaw Creek flooding dates back decades and was long seen as a benefit, with mostly farmland below the ditch capable of carrying flows of about five cubic feet per second.
But when development began in that area, suddenly flows that Keenhan said can get up to 320 cfs in a 100-year flood event presented a serious problem. The residential area near around Wide Hollow Creek and 80th Avenue put in before the 1985 flood maps consistently takes on water, and the Cottonwood Groves subdivision began going in just as the county began to look at flood maps for the area in the early 2000s.
“As soon as we got a draft and the maps, we went out there and kind of slowed down the development,” Keenhan said. “We said, ‘nope, gotta stop, gotta talk to us now.’”
If the project succeeds in taking 1,100 acres out of the 100-year floodplain, it wouldn’t just prevent constant flooding in numerous areas such as the Clinton Way Subdivision and Meadowbrook Mobile Estates. Development could also resume on several hundred acres of land between 67th and 96th avenues.
Deadlines and sandbags
Although grants were acquired to cover all the funds necessary, delays mean the county must extend two deadlines coming up later this year.
Bennett said he’s confident the county will be able to get at least a one-year extensions on the state grant set to expire in June and the national FEMA grant set to expire at the end of September. Broom said the state is still working with the county to draft an application that FEMA’s regional hazard mitigation branch chief Kristen Meyers said must be submitted 60 days before the deadline.
Dougherty expressed skepticism, saying the delays are a concern for some neighbors.
Residents will continue to face spring flooding concerns for at least two more years, and at least one has taken matters into his own hands by building a berm on his property. Bartrand suggests those living in a place like Cottonwood Grove could buy sandbags and Bennett advised calling the county for assistance.
The longtime engineer understands the frustration from those hoping to avoid flooded basements and costly insurance payments. Bennett’s working nearly full-time on the project these days along with an engineer and even enlisted the help of three others over the last two months.
“I feel bad because we’ve got a timeline and we keep changing it,” Bennett said. “It takes longer and longer and longer.”