Whatcom flood board OKs $3.4M project to remove Canyon Creek levee



The levee next to Canyon Creek Tuesday, April 30, 2013 off Canyon View Drive, east of Maple Falls.


GLACIER - Some members of the Whatcom County Council said the Glacier Springs subdivision was ill-conceived, but a majority voted to go ahead with a $3.4 million project to protect the homes there from the floodwaters of Canyon Creek.

The subdivision was platted in the 1970s, before the hazards of building on an alluvial fan were well understood, said Paula Cooper, an engineering manager for Whatcom County Public Works. The most immediate concern is that the creek, when running high and clogged with debris, could break the levee built in 1994 to protect the neighborhood.

More recent studies of how debris flows down that creek have shown the levee to be inadequate, Cooper said.

"The armor rock on the existing levee ... provides a false sense of security to Glacier Springs residents," said a Public Works memo to the Flood Control Zone District Board of Supervisors. The board has the same members as the county council. "Failure of the existing levee could potentially increase damages in areas of the fan."

Tearing down the levee, built in the middle of the creek bed, and moving the armor rock to the bank below the subdivision will improve flood protection while enhancing salmon habitat, county officials say. The work is scheduled to begin in early June.

Making the creek more hospitable to chinook salmon became a priority after the species was federally listed as threatened in 1999. About half the chinook in the north fork Nooksack River spawn in the lowest mile of the creek. Five salmon species spawn in the creek, county natural resource planner John Thompson said, in addition to bull trout and steelhead - two species that are also threatened.

The creek will flow in a wider channel after the levee is removed, slowing the water and allowing more sediment to deposit in the streambed. Salmon that spawn in the creek don't survive well in part because eggs "get scoured away" by the current, Thompson said.

Eleven artificial logjams will be placed in the stream during this year's phase of the project, creating pools where young salmon can hide and where spawners can lay eggs.

The next phase of the project, if funded, would add 12 more logjams in 2014.

The flood board voted 4 to 2 on Tuesday, April 23, to approve spending $635,000 from the flood fund to cover the remaining cost of the project. Most of the county's portion of the cost had already been approved.

The flood fund comes from a property tax that generates more than $3 million a year in revenue.

The total project cost is $3.4 million, with as much as $2.75 million for construction. About half the total cost is supported by grants, including $973,750 from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board, awarded in 2010.

Flood board member Ken Mann strongly opposed the expenditure, calling the project "the definition of a money pit" at a March surface water work session. Kathy Kershner cast the other vote against committing the flood fund money.

Before last week's vote, Mann debated personal vs. government responsibility with board member Barbara Brenner. Mann said property owners at Glacier Springs brought this problem on themselves by building in a dangerous area.

"I can't spend $2 million of county taxpayers' dollars to bail out people who built where they shouldn't have," Mann said.

Brenner said the county must take responsibility for issuing building permits in the subdivision.

"People trust us that if something was permitted, then it was legal," she said.


What: Community meeting on Canyon Creek flood/fish project at Glacier Springs.

When: 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, May 11.

Where: East Whatcom Regional Resource Center, 8251 Kendall Road.

More info: 360-676-6876, ext. 50695.


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Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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