River isn't neighborly - South Fork Stilly spits logs, eats land

A 40-foot cedar log came up from the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River and smashed Glen Libby’s backyard shed, narrowly missing his Robe Valley home on Jan. 26.

By Scott Morris
Skagit Valley Herald Writer


GRANITE FALLS, WA-- Normally, Glen Libby would love to wake up and find a fresh cedar log deposited near his woodshed.

Libby's hobby is carving chunks of cedar with a chainsaw into artistic sculptures.

But last week, the 56-year-old Robe Valley resident got an unexpected gift log that hit a little too close to home.

As Libby sat down for his morning coffee at 6 a.m. Jan. 26, the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River spit up an 18-inch diameter, 40-foot long cedar log over the bank, crushing Libby's shed and narrowly missing the mobile home in which he sat.

"I heard this crunching sound," Libby said. "I saw the shed moving. I thought that it was the water moving it. It was still dark."

It wasn't the water, although the river was high enough to send the log airborne at least 10 feet.

The log was the latest and most dramatic salvo in a battle Libby and some neighbors fear they're losing to the river.

And like other residents who live in vulnerable riverfront enclaves, Libby and some of his neighbors feel handcuffed by rules designed to protect shorelines and salmon habitat.

Biologists are reluctant to approve emergency riprap projects that use large boulders to stabilize a riverbank.

The boulders tend to displace the erosion problem to other neighbors, and juvenile fish don't tend to use riprapped areas for habitat, biologists say.

But neighbors say the riprap could stabilize the Stilly's bank and keep it from eroding.

Toni Turner, a flood engineer for Snohomish County Surface Water Management, said she first started working with the Robe Valley neighborhood in late 1999.

At that time, in a similar neighborhood near Darrington, a house was washed away by a dramatic change in the course of the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River.

Some folks in Robe consulted with a Portland, Ore., engineer who said that a similar change of course could happen at their bend of the South Fork of the Stilly.

The Robe residents fear that the Stilly could divert into Tom Creek just 75 yards away, and go right through the middle of that neighborhood.

Turner said that is unlikely, but she acknowledged that the significant erosion at that bend is a huge problem for nearby landowners.

"There's no doubt in my mind that Glen Libby is in a tough spot," Turner said.

Turner said county employees are in a tough spot, too, because some people criticize attempts to bail out people who bought riverfront property.

A few options exist, but most require significant, often prohibitive, spending by the landowners.

"The challenge is trying to use public money for a private benefit," Turner said. "You can't do that. If you receive money from the public, you have to spend it on efforts that have a public benefit."

The county has a Cooperative Bank Stabilization Program, but it focuses on longer stretches of a river, not just individual properties.

"We need probably 10 or so homeowners," Turner said.

A more dramatic buyout solution has worked in Darrington and along the Skykomish River but, again, cooperation is required.

In Darrington, the county secured a grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency to purchase 16 homes.

In Libby's case, some neighbors are cooperating but not enough.

"I can't get everybody involved, so I'm at my wit's end," Libby said. "We just flat don't have the money."

Libby bought what he called his retirement dream property in August 2001, when the river was low.

Getting sleep these days is tough for Libby and his wife, Audrey, whenever the water rises.

"We had everything packed, had suitcases packed, loaded up the dogs and went and had breakfast in Granite Falls," Libby said about the morning the log smacked his shed. "My wife was just shaking. She wants out. Needless to say it's kind of nerve-wracking."

Reporter Scott Morris: 425-339-3292 or smorris@heraldnet.com.


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