Deming levee gets state support, no money from tribe

This town, headquarters to Mount Baker School District and the Nooksack Indian Tribe, has remained vulnerable to flooding since the Nooksack River flowed over an earthen berm at the end of an otherwise protective levee in 2006.

Now, over the next two years, Whatcom County officials will oversee the design and construction of an 850-foot, rock-covered wall along the weak point in the levee that protects Deming, with most of the money coming from a state grant.

County Council members, acting as the Flood Control Zone District Board of Supervisors, voted on Dec. 9 to enter into the agreement that came with the $1.44 million award. The other $495,000 to be spent on the levee project will come from the Flood Control Zone District’s fund, which is supported by county property-tax payers.

Council members had hoped to get a contribution from the Nooksack Indian Tribe because the floodwaters threaten the septic drainfield of the Nooksack River Casino and other tribal properties. Mount Baker School District’s bus barn, maintenance facilities and sewage lagoon also are within the flood’s reach, according to the grant agreement.

About a year ago, county officials said they had been told the tribal council was too preoccupied with a controversial effort to dis–enroll hundreds of tribal members to properly consider funding the levee. Tribal Chairman Bob Kelly didn’t respond to an email requesting comment for this story.

“Apparently, the internal strife of expelling tribal members brought all other government affairs to an extreme slowdown,” County Council member Ken Mann said in an email to The Bellingham Herald on Tuesday, Dec. 23. “Since then, I have had no updates or communication with the tribe.”

County officials received some support from the tribe, although it wasn’t monetary, said Paula Cooper, the county’s river and flood manager.

“They gave us the access ... so we could get in there and put groundwater wells in,” she said. The wells are intended to check for wetlands. “At this point, there’s no financial commitment (from the tribe).”

After permit approvals, planning, and refining the cost estimate, levee construction is scheduled to be completed by late 2016. The bulk of the grant, about $1.3 million, won’t be spent until after June 2015, when a new state budget goes into effect.

The money isn’t a sure thing. The Legislature in its upcoming session must approve the money that will be spent after mid-2015. Budget negotiations are sure to be contentious, but a Nov. 17 memo from county staff to the council said legislative approval was “expected.”

The session doesn’t start until Jan. 12, but Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, who represents Deming, indicated the grant should stay on the books through 2017.

“That would obviously be something, as legislators from this district, we would fight to stay in there,” he said Tuesday, Dec. 23. “It’s not a feel-good project. It’s actually a project that needs to be done.”