CATHLAMET — A badly eroded dike that protects about 2,000 acres of a reserve for endangered deer is in imminent danger of collapse, according to officials, who fear the flooding could set back decades of deer-recovery efforts and perhaps threaten State Route 4.

About two weeks ago, Wahkiakum County commissioners closed an undercut section of Steamboat Slough Road, a one-lane route atop the dike that keeps the Columbia River from flooding the federally owned Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for Columbian White-tailed Deer. Since then, the commissioners have learned that the dike is in even worse shape.

There is a real "risk of a deep-seated mass failure which could suddenly cause the whole dike to simply slide away in to the river," Pete Ringen, the county's public works director, said Tuesday.

Over time, the river channel has deepened along a bend in the river. This has "created a hole underneath the rock that was placed to protect the dike, causing the rock (rip rap) to slide away," Ringen said.

Although the shipping channel has been deepened near that location, it's unclear whether dredging was a factor in the erosion.

"The location of the erosion is in a natural bend of the river. It's fairly normal for deeper water to occur on the outside of a bend. It could be the result of the natural processes," Ringen said.

Because the damage is so extensive, the relatively affordable $250,000 fix the county had planned no longer is an option. In late March, an engineer contracted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the deer refuge, told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and county that the fix would cost between $2.7 and 4.5 million dollars.

"It was much worse than we had thought under the water," said County Commissioner Lisa Marsyla. "We also learned that there appear to be no temporary fixes. To me it was very scary. Without a long-term fix, I fear that dike will go out and flood the wildlife refuge."

The dike, owned by Wahkiakum County Diking District 4, was built in the 1920s to protect farmland. Now it protects the mainland part of the refuge, which is home to an estimated 100 Columbian White Tail deer. Joel David, who manages the refuge, said no one is sure exactly how frequent inundation by high tides would affect the deer, but it wouldn't be good and would certainly shrink the available habitat.

"I don't know if we would lose 100 percent of the deer, but it would sure reduce the amount of land they could use if they had the tide coming in twice a day," David said.

The refuge, established in 1972, is home to about 300 Columbian white-tailed deer, which are spread out on refuge lands that include Tenasillahe, Hunting, Crims and Wallace islands in the Columbia River. The refuge also protects a large variety of wintering birds, a small herd of Roosevelt elk, river otter, reptiles and amphibians including painted turtles and red-legged frogs, and several pairs of nesting bald eagles and osprey.

Another 300-400 deer live on private lands along the river. So while the impending flooding does not threaten the species with extinction, it would be a big setback in efforts to recover and delist the species, obliterating significant time and money that has gone into improving the mainland part of the refuge, David said.

"We've worked a long time to try and protect this," David said. "The corps has invested in fish-friendly tide gates, funded tree planting, etc. We've put a lot of work and time rehabbing the land."

A secondary concern for Lisa Marsyla is the potential threat to nearby State Road 4. Little is known about whether —or how — flooding would affect the highway, Marsyla said, but with Steamboat Slough Road already closed, the prospect of also losing access to the main route in and out of the county is worrisome.

A nearby stretch of the dike had the same problem in the mid 1990s, and at the time the area's congressional delegation found money to make repairs. Obtaining money in a time of much tighter budgets may not be so easy, though.

Marsyla said that she and Ringen hope to meet with Army Corps of Engineers emergency management personnel in the near future to plan for the likelihood that the refuge will flood before repairs can be made. Marsyla also met with Southwest Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Butler on Friday, and asked her to seek funds for repairs.

"I specifically requested that Fish and Wildlife and Washington, D.C., understand the graveness of what's going on here," Marsyla said.

David said that officials have met with Herrera Butler's representatives as well as those of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. So far, though, no money to repair the problem is forthcoming.

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