Officials knew of Methow logjam threat, blame each other for inaction

By K.C. Mehaffey

Wenatchee World staff writer
Tuesday, June 18, 2002

MAZAMA - Residents say a home would not have slipped into the Methow River
Sunday if the state allowed them three years ago to remove a logjam blamed
for changing the course of the river.

Okanogan County Commissioner Dave Schulz said the county tried to get a
permit to remove the logs in 1999, but a state biologist said it would be
denied because the logs were considered beneficial for endangered salmon
and steelhead.

Over the weekend, the river gushed around the logjam, ate into its east
bank and eroded the ground under the two-story log home belonging to Don
and Pam Fitzpatrick of Woodinville, and Heather and Brad Sturgill of
Ballard. The $385,000 home was destroyed Sunday, and the owners have no
flood insur

Schulz said he went to state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist
Lynda Hofmann three years ago when an engineer told him the logjam was
likely to cause erosion problems.

"She said she wouldn't approve it, and she's the one who issues permits,"
he said.

But Hofmann said the county never applied for the permit, and she would
have worked with them if they had.

"I told them that ordinarily, we don't like to see logjams removed. ...
They took it to mean 'no' and didn't pursue it," she said.

She said it can take a year to get a permit to remove a logjam, as any
large project requires an environmental analysis and input from the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers.

"More of the issue is building in the flood plain," she said, adding the
home may have technically been outside the flood plain, but only by about 1
foot.

"Our job is to try to protect the resource so people can have fish for the
future, and not just homes," she said.

Heather Sturgill said she was never even told that the logjam might mean
trouble.

She said it was like a nightmare on Sunday to watch the river slowly eat
away the property where her family has camped since she was young.

She and her brother Don Fitzpatrick and their spouses later bought the
property and house from their parents.

Sturgill said she's glad she wasn't there to see the porch and living room
drop into the water, break off the house and float downstream before
lodging on a high spot at about 3 p.m.

Workers then used heavy equipment to tear apart the rest of the house and
set it on the bank, to prevent large pieces from rushing toward a bridge on
Highway 20.

"I think I'm probably in shock," Sturgill said as she and her husband
assessed the damage Monday. "It's just frustration and anger and deep
sadness. It's hard to put it all together."

She said more than half of the 1-acre property is now under water.

Connie Humphrey, Okanogan County chief deputy in charge of emergency
services, estimated that up to three acres of land washed away along that
bank.

Before Sunday, the home sat about 100 feet away from the river and 8 feet
above it.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers guided emergency work
Monday to stabilize the bank using logs and dirt to prevent more erosion of
the riverbank.

Humphrey said she's hoping the work will save the Sturgill's garage with an
upstairs living area, and help mitigate erosion problems downstream. It was
still standing late last night.

John Hayes, a Mazama resident who used to own land next to the house, said
he's known for years that the logjam needed to be removed, and blamed the
state for its unwillingness to allow it.

Hayes said an Army Corps engineer was at the site in 1999 to help fix a
dike. "He told all of us if the logjam wasn't removed from the area on the
other side, the river would drop sediment there and change its course and
drill right into that property."

Hayes said he lost $750,000 worth of timber on his property and the value
of the property plummeted before he sold it to the state two years ago.

"Where have we lost our ability to use common sense when it comes to
managing resources?" he asked. It's the kind of fish issue that turns
people into anti-environmentalists, he said.

Schulz said he's worried about all the other logjams on the upper Methow
River that will eventually cause more property damage and perhaps more lost
homes and bridges.

"Anytime fish become, in some people's mind, the number one priority even
before the safety, health and welfare of people, it's a hard pill to
swallow," he said.

Midge Hartz, who owns property downstream, said she and her husband, Ron,
have been calling state and federal agencies to get permission to use
fish-friendly materials to stabilize the bank in front of their house, but
had no success Monday.

Another logjam sits above her place. "We want to secure our bank. But in
order to do that, you have to have permission from everybody," she said.

She said she's already lost about 10 feet of bank, but she's not worried
about losing her house yet.

Sturgill said it was hard to imagine that her house would ever slip in to
the river either.

"I think the wonderful thing about this - we had so much help from so many
wonderful people in the community," Sturgill said. "It showed the spirit of
what this valley is about."

She said they had so much help on Sunday morning from neighbors that all of
their belongings were out of the house in two hours.

Robin Fox, forecaster for the National Weather Service in Spokane, said the
Methow River was well below flood stage Sunday, when it probably crested
for this year.

She said there are no flood levels set at Mazama, but the Methow River was
more than 2 feet below flooding at Pateros.

Since Sunday, the river at Mazama has dropped 112 feet, and may rise again
with warmer weather, but will not likely reach Sunday's high point, she said.

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