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River erosion threatens road

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FALL CITY - A Fall City developer has an idea of how to help curb an erosion problem that could threaten a major state highway near Fall City.

Tom Bernard, a Seattle resident who owns Bernard Development Co. out of Preston, has been closely watching the north bank of the Snoqualmie River in Fall City erode away. In the past year he has seen the rip rap, a generic term for gravel or stone used to shore up the banks of rivers, wash away from the north bank hillside just feet below State Route 202.

The erosion is close to the junction of SR 202 and SR 203, which is near the bridge that takes SR 202 over the Snoqualmie River.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is aware of the problem and is looking for funding to fix it this summer. It is trying to find about $500,000 needed to put in some rock braces near the bridge that would curb erosion. Jim McBride, superintendent of maintenance for WSDOT, said fixing the problem is a priority for the department.

"We don't want a repeat of what happened in 1996," he said, referring to an emergency shoring project WSDOT had to do after the floods of that year eroded a bank upstream from the current site.

Bernard, however, said just shoring up the bank is a temporary solution to a long-term problem. He has suggested that the only way to stop the erosion of the bank in the long run is to change its flow. By dredging the Snoqualmie River, and the confluence it shares with the Raging River upstream, the flow that is eating away the bank would slow down.

Bernard has a vested interest in the project. He owns land next to the Colonial Inn containing an RV storage lot, which is right at the confluence of the Snoqualmie River and Raging River and across from the eroding bank. If the river were to be shallower and slower in that area, it would be ideal for salmon spawning. Bernard has long wanted to build some sort of rural getaway on his property and a salmon spawning ground would be an ideal feature for vacationing anglers.

Being able to mine gravel from the river would also be beneficial for Bernard. Should he build something on his site, he would like to use stone on its facade. Stone can be expensive, though, and could add millions of dollars to the final construction cost. If he could dredge the gravel for personal use, he could use it on his building. Furthermore, Bernard could arrange a deal with the state where he wouldn't have to pay a royalty on the gravel he dredges by exchanging land that he owns east of North Bend.

Knowing his idea would be met with a criticism, Bernard has said dredging would be a benefit to all concerns involved, especially environmental ones. He cited a study on river dredging of the Snohomish River done by Snohomish County that showed it was a benefit to salmon habitat and stated that his plan on the Snoqualmie would be beneficial as well, since it's all part of the same river system.

Questions about the altruism of Bernard's motives to dredge the river are answered with the timeline he has set for himself. While he admitted a restored salmon habitat could only help his property, Bernard said he is pushing ahead with his plan before he knows if he could even build his getaway. Add in the fact that Bernard would pay for the dredging himself and he believes he has a deal that stands on its own as a benefit to everyone.

"I'm not here to pillage the city [Fall City]," Bernard said. "I'm putting that fish habitat first."

Bernard's plan is still in its infancy, but he has been talking to state officials to get it in motion. Any plan of that magnitude would have to receive county, state and federal approval. He has contacted State Representative Glenn Anderson, who said both short-term and long-term solutions to the erosion problem need to be considered.

"The best thing is to do a thorough evaluation [of the problem]," Anderson said. "If that involves dredging, than we should look at it."

King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who had not heard about Bernard's plan, said the county would be hesitant to approve any projects in the rural area, especially one that involves the river. The county is in the process of updating its development regulations in unincorporated areas and Lambert said one of her challenges has been to get the county to be more receptive to projects in her district.

"I spend 80 percent of my time just dealing with DDES [King County Department of Development and Environmental Services]," Lambert said.

McBride said his biggest concerns are time and money, neither of which are in great supply. While Bernard's idea may or may not be better than the state's plan, McBride's immediate concern is protecting the road and the bridge.

He said the benefits of Bernard's plan would have to be considered by the state, but it could be just another bandage to a problem that will have to be dealt with perennially. He said when a hole is dug on the beach it will always fill back up with sediment, no matter how big the hole is. River hydraulics and dredging adhere to the same principle.

"The river always wins," he said.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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