Methow: On the banks of the wild - Radical behavior has some wondering if river needs more elbow room

By John Hanron
Methow Valley News

Methow Valley, WA - 6/26/02 - The dust had barely settled after last week’s rapid erosion of a river bank that sent an expensive vacation home crashing into the Methow River before some said they had seen it coming years ago.

By all accounts, the erosion of the river bank outside the vacation home of Heather and Brad Sturgill and Don and Pam Fitzpatrick happened amazingly quickly, as the river, flowing in a recently reclaimed course, eroded the 100-foot-long low bank away in under 24 hours.

"Normal bank erosion doesn’t happen like that," said Army Corps of Engineers flood engineer Norm Skjelbreia, who showed up just after the house fell.

In the last three weeks, the Methow River changed its course drastically in this dynamic river landscape below Mazama. The river abandoned one major side channel that ran in front of the lower Edelweiss properties. Then it started moving across the island that separated the two channels, toppling 50-year-old cottonwood trees and emerging directly across from the Sturgill/Fitzpatrick house.

But county officials and private residents say the incident could have been avoided if the state would have allowed the removal of a logjam upstream three years ago.

In late June of 1999, Okanogan County and the Methow Institute Foundation applied for a permit for emergency repair work on a breach in an earthen dike across the river and upstream from the Sturgill/Fitzpatrick house. According to Mazama resident and MIF director John Hayes, a large logjam situated next to the dike was diverting river water into the hole and enlarging it rapidly. The high water going through the dike was flooding the recreational trail and private land and lapping up against Highway 20.

The emergency permit application asked for permission to add rock to the dike and remove portions of the adjacent logjam. Permission was granted to fix the 200-foot section of breached levee, but no mention was made of the logjam.

"I thought we were forceful in asking to remove the logjam," remembered Okanogan County Commissioner Dave Schulz. "I was very unhappy about that. I said when we were on the dike (in 1999) that this is what would happen."

Skjelbreia said though his agency rarely removes logjams, it may have been prudent to consider dismantling the one adjacent to the dike three years ago.

"Logjams are expensive to tear out," he said. "There’s a liability downstream. If it goes down and takes out the bridge... Normally we stay out of them. In this case I think it was proactive for the county to try and remove that logjam because they saw the dangers that ultimately came to fruition."

But state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Lynda Hoffman, who worked with the applicants in 1999, said she never saw evidence of a dangerous logjam at the dike.

"We very rarely deny permits and we try to work with people," she said. "The last thing I want is to have somebody’s house fall in the river."

Hoffman instead points to the levee itself as the likely culprit in affecting the river’s flow toward the Sturgill/Fitzpatrick house.

The dike, she explained, not only cut off natural floodplain area behind it, but straightened and smoothed the course of the river, allowing it to pick up speed and energy.

"I talked to the Corps and the county and anyone that would listen that this was going to cause more problems, she said. "The logjam is not the key issue that is happening."

Logjams, most water experts agree, are a natural and beneficial part of the river ecosystem.

"It is kind of nature’s way to create a logjam and redirect a river," offered the Corps’ Skjelbreia. "That’s what rivers do."

Jennifer Molesworth, a fisheries biologist with the Methow Valley Ranger District said on the national forest, logjams are rarely taken out. The woody debris offers multitudes of benefits to fish and other users of the river. Besides improving fish habitat, the jams store nutrients and break up the flow of the river, allowing it to meander into natural side channels that become more habitat.

"It’s not just about fish, but about the whole character of the valley floor," Molesworth said.

Schulz, too, said he recognizes the benefits of woody debris in the river.

"It’s a very delicate and difficult decision to decide what action to take," he said. "The river does meander and sometimes it causes damage and sometimes its doesn’t."

Schulz, who was here in the Methow during the floods of 1948 and 1972, said if a flood of that magnitude were to occur today, there would be widespread damage because of all the woody debris in the river.

In the past, he points out, logjams were either burned if they were considered dangerous, or were harvested for wood. "But with ESA being interpreted the way it is today, all the above is prohibited."

Hoffman said the state will issue emergency work permits when a structure is in danger, such as it did in 1999 and did again last week.

Under the county’s emergency declaration, Ron and Midge Hartz, who own property across and downstream from the Sturgill/Fitzpatrick house, have beefed up the river bank in front of their expensive second home.

The Hartzes, whose property was flooded when the dike broke in 1999, have seen a drastic increase of bank erosion since the river cut through the cottonwood forest on the island.

"We’ve never seen so many large trees in the river," said Midge Hartz.

Last week, they received emergency approval to reinforce their bank with riprap—large angular rocks—and 30 logs with root balls (purchased, ironically, and trucked in to the site) chained to a buried concrete anchor on land.

"We’re very cautious and very aware that we don’t want to cause problems for fish, but we also want to save our property," said Hartz.

But Hoffman and Molesworth say the bigger solution may be backing up and taking a look at whether it is reasonable to build so close to the river. Though the county does not allow permanent structures to be built in the floodplain, Hoffman said maps may not be giving an accurate picture of the environment. She said the maps used by the county—produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency--are often outdated and inaccurate.

"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist," she said. "If you look at aerial photos, it’s just a really dynamic location and it’s been that way for centuries. You can’t think that just because you put a house there, you’re going to be exempt.

"The county really needs a technical expert to look at those areas to determine if they are in the floodplain."

Schulz agrees that there could be better documentation of the historic river flows, especially in the upper Methow.

He proposes that the county conduct a "meander plan" so that property owners and builders can have a better idea of "what they’re getting into."

"That kind of assessment," said Molesworth, "would definitely put one more constraint on where we build houses. People complain about ridgetop houses, but ecologically and from a public safety and taxpayer dollar standpoint, this type of thing (building on potential floodplain) is far more damaging and far more expensive."

Schulz said the county is taking a cooperative perspective and will be moving to address some of these issues.

"The objective here is to discuss some of these circumstances so we can work together and better serve the public," he said. "The different agencies need to talk to one another."

Molesworth added that through a better understanding of the river ecosystem, we can learn to recognize just how much elbow room it needs.

"We have to learn how to get along because ultimately, the river will win," she said. "That or we’ll lose all the values we hold important."

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