President Donald Trump’s proposed 2021 budget does not include funding for Mount St. Helens sediment monitoring and for raising the Toutle River sediment retaining dam.
If Congress does not get the request into the budget, 2021 would mark the sixth consecutive fiscal year that the federal government has not funded its volcano-related flood control obligations, local officials say.
Cowlitz County Commissioner Joe Gardner said he’s concerned, because the county is “potentially the next high-water event away” from serious consequences.
“Without the data we are flying blind as far as understanding what our level of (flood) protection is, and that impacts so many different communities within the county,” Gardner said Wednesday.
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens dumped about 3 billion tons of erodible debris in the upper reaches of the Toutle Valley, which could clog the Cowlitz River and raise the risk of flooding. The corps built a 125-foot-high sediment retaining dam in the 1980s to check the debris flow, but the holding area behind the dam is full and letting silt pass downstream. The Portland District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to raise the dam another 10 feet in 2022 and asked for money next year for designing the project.
Amy Holmes, Corps of Engineers project manager, said while the organization is “disappointed,” it’s already making plans to divert enough funds to keep vital sections of the project running.
“We’re doing everything we can at our level to identify funding,” she said.
Holmes said the Mount St. Helens Long Term Sediment Management Plan relies on comparing years of data, and without funding for yearly monitoring, the Corps cannot properly manage the rivers. She said Corps hydrologists are working with a four-year data gap.
“Our whole plan depends on collecting data every year,” Holmes said. “So when we can’t collect data every year we don’t have the information we need to determine whether its time to raise (the sediment dam) or ... need to dredge?”
In November, Southwest Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray sent a bipartisan letter to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget urging it to make funding for monitoring volcanic silt buildup in the river a priority for 2020.
“It is imperative that future work plans include full funding to ensure this critical work is completed,” the letter said. “Failing to address the risk to these communities not only threatens them with the uncertainty of flooding, but fails to give them the peace of mind that monitoring can provide.”
Herrera Beutler’s spokesman Craig Wheeler said Wednesday that Herrera Beutler, a Clark County Republican, is “deeply disappointed that the spending blueprint falls well short of adequately addressing this region’s Mount St. Helens sediment management needs.”
He added that she “won’t let up in her efforts to secure federal funding for this effort.”
“Jaime has fought for and will continue to fight for the federal government to play a strong role in protecting communities from the potential damage of catastrophic flooding that stems from unmanaged sediment,” Wheeler said.
Sen. Murray, who is the highest-ranking Democrat on the key Senate Appropriations committee, issued in a prepared statement: “I have repeatedly called on the Administration to understand the threat that these communities are facing because it is serious — and it’s time this Administration started treating it as such. As a voice for Southwest Washington in the Senate, I will fight against the irresponsible choices proposed in the president’s budget, and I will continue working to prioritize long-term safety and resiliency for the communities around Mount. St. Helens.”
Holmes said the last time the Corps was granted federal funding to monitor sediment was in 2015. Last year, Cowlitz County, the City of Castle Rock, the Longview, Kelso and Lexington diking districts, and the Port of Longview paid the Corps $110,000 for a river survey. The results, released last week, found that flood protection levels are largely unchanged except in Lexington, where shoaling has decreased flood protection levels slightly below authorized levels.
“Managing the debris and sediment from the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption is one-of-a-kind, and there is no other place like it in the continental United States,” Holmes said.
Axel Swanson, county chief of staff, said the county “should not be picking up the tab” for a congressional mandate, even though river monitoring is critical.
“Imagine if we hadn’t come together as a community and done that (study) we would not ... know the trend in our flood prediction levels,” Swanson said. “We would be more than a year behind where we are today and we would be continuing to drift in the dark.”
“(The lack of funding) is getting very frustrating, especially on the heels of the report we just got,” about Lexington Swanson said.
Swanson said the county will send a commissioner to Washington, D.C. in the next few weeks to lobby for funding, calling it the “number one priority.”
Swanson said that even though the Corps didn’t immediately raise alarms bells, they did indicate that they would recommend action to address Lexington. However, that was before they learned they would not be funded in 2020 or 2021.
“Now they have zero ability to being working on that in the next two years,” Swanson said.
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