Lower Valley flood plaintiff makes plea for dollars

That a handful of farmers and business owners in the Lower Valley could band together to fight a major utility and the federal government, raising $64,000 in the process, amazes Jubilee Farm owner Erick Haakenson.

The 22-year Carnation farmer helped found Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance last summer, seeing it as the last line of defense for property owners in harm’s way from potential flood impacts from river projects at Snoqualmie Falls.

So when the grassroots group’s bank account hit bottom this fall, Haakenson and other Alliance board members went public with a call for donations.

“I’m not one bit ashamed to ask for money,” said Haakenson, who convened a town meeting in November at Tolt Middle School, the first such event called by the Alliance since it filed suit last summer against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in U.S. District Court.

That day, the Alliance had $86 in the bank. As 2011 begins, the group has a healthier bank account but remains in fundraising mode. It needs to raise $40,000 by February to pay legal fees.

"We've gotten a great response from the Valley," said SVPA President Geary Eppley. He told the Record that the group has raised a significant portion of its goal.

"We know there are more bills coming," Eppley added.

Much of the money raised this year came from the farmers and business people already associated with the group. Alliance members say it is time for others to help.

“All of us have given to see this happen,” Haakenson said. “We haven’t given just once, but every time a bill came, we gave again. Those of us who have given, have given so much above what we thought we would or could.”

To Haakenson and other board members, their legal crusade is vital to preserving the character of the Lower Valley. Alliance members believe the Corps’ 205 river widening project made flooding worse, and have called for a halt to Puget Sound Energy’s new work at Snoqualmie Falls. PSE’s project calls for the dam at the falls to be lowered by four feet, and the channel widened by about 35 feet. The utility is also now party to the case.

Flood stories

With ancestors in the Valley for a century, Carnation dairy farmer Jason Roetcisoender’s family has survived many floods.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they’re getting worse and more frequent,” he said.

The 2009 flood cost his business nearly $200,000, which Roetcisoender said his far from done paying off. Unable to milk his herd for two days, the farmer said the pained beasts could be heard lowing a mile away.

“We’ve seen a lot of our neighbors move,” he said. “I don’t want to walk away from land that my family has been on for 100 years.”

Even if he did want to move, “try finding a pigeon who wants to buy a farm in a floodplain. You couldn’t give it away.”

Snoqualmie Falls Golf Course owner John Groshell is one of the biggest supporters of the Alliance. Groshell lost hundreds of thousands in the January 2009 flood, which swamped his course with sand and mud, several feet high in places.

“We’re the first place where the water starts taking off and tearing things apart,” he said.

Groshell is adamant that since the 205 project, floods rise faster and higher and do more damage.

“I don’t have volumes of things to document it. I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, it’s true,” he said.

Prior to the Corps project, most floods were manageable, Groshell told listeners.

“That ended after the 205 project,” he said. “The flood in 2006 was awful. Even then, we were back in operation after six weeks.”

The 2009 flood, he said, “was beyond anything I can imagine.”

New river projects jeopardize the course, which Groshell bought into in 1972 and one day hopes to pass on to his son Jeff.

“They say it’s just going to be an inch,” he said. “An inch does matter. Every bit matters.”

Legal argument

The Alliance filed suit last summer in an effort to spur a comprehensive study of Lower Valley flood impacts.

In their suit, the Alliance claims that the Corps of Engineers ignored a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission order to analyze the downstream impacts by PSE‘s project. The group alleges that the Corps avoided a permitting process that would have required more public input and analysis.

Alliance attorney Charles Klinge of Bellevue firm Groen, Stephens and Klinge said the Corps’ permit is more appropriate for retail and industrial development with some wetland impacts.

“This permit is not for river widening, it’s just not,” Klinge said.

Federal Judge John C. Coughenour is expected to make a ruling at any time. Klinge is optimistic of a favorable ruling.

Coughenour “has got smart attorneys working for him,and they’re probably going to sort this out,” Klinge said. “He’s not going to be intimidated by PSE or Department of Justice attorneys.”

If Coughenour does rule in favor of the Alliance, Klinge said there are two levels of appeal: the Ninth Circuit of Appeals in San Francisco, and after that, the U.S. Supreme Court. Those appeals are potentially less expensive than the current case, Klinge said.

“If we get a ruling in our favor, we’re going to be in the driver’s seat,” Klinge said. “What we really want is the comprehensive flood study. If the Corps does environmental review, they have to look at reasonable mitigation measures.”

The suit does not seek damages for past or future floods.

“This lawsuit is attacking the Corps decision, trying to get them to make a good decision and do a flood study,” Klinge said.

Corps position

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Seattle-based Public Affairs Office, work on the Falls project was allowed under three Nationwide Permits. Permit 3 allows for repair or replacement of any previously authorized structure, provided that its use does not change. Minor deviations in the filled area are authorized.

Permit 33 allows temporary structures such as cofferdams, access fills or dewatering of construction sites.

Permit 39 allows the discharge of fill into rivers for the construction or expansion of foundations and pads and attendant features. The fill must not take up more than a half-acre of river or 300 feet of a stream bed, unless waived by the district engineer.

In a statement to the court, the Corps' attorneys argue that the SVPA can't prove that the Corps' verification of the project was faulty.

The defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment states that the project was "fully evaluated" by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission through an extensive environmental review process that included the development of an Environmental Impact Statement in 1996 and an Environmental Assessment in 2009, as well as involvement from federal, state and local government

agencies, Indian tribes and members of the public.

Flooding impacts "were thoroughly considered and resolved by FERC," the Corps' motion states. "The Corps reasonably relied on FERC's environmental review and determination, which complimented the Corps' own reasonable analysis."

PSE response

Puget Sound Energy Spokesman Roger Thompson declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit. However, Thompson reiterated the company’s stance that the Snoqualmie Falls hydropower plant is not and has never been a flood control project.

The Falls is a run-of-the-river facility, and does not store very much water, Thompson said. The company predicts an inch or smaller rise in Lower Valley flood levels in the event of a 100-year flood, and a six-inch decrease in 100-year flood levels in historic Snoqualmie.

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