Touchet River levee in Dayton raises concerns

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DAYTON — The Columbia County Board of Commissioners recently approved a capital expenditure of $35,000 in 2013 for maintenance of the Touchet River levee near Dayton. The money will be used to remove trees and vegetation from the portion of the levee outside Dayton’s city limits.

During the meeting, Commissioner Dick Jones expressed concern about ongoing maintenance of the levee, especially the portion within Dayton.

“I know the city has very limited funds for levee maintenance,” he said, “but the impact to residents near the levee will be tremendous if it is decertified.”

The levee, which was built in the early 1960s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, stretches from approximately a mile south of the city limits, through the city to a point about a mile northwest of the city limits. The city and county are each responsible for maintenance of their portions of the levee.

The levee is inspected annually by the Corps, and it has received a “minimally acceptable” rating for the last several years. The entire length of the levee is at risk of being decertified if Corps inspectors feel that even parts of it don’t meet the standards of “minimally acceptable.”

“The Corps wants trees and brush removed from the levee so its integrity isn’t compromised and so it can be easily inspected,” said Jones. “It’s an important public safety issue.” Jones notes that the county has spent approximately $90,000 in the past three years on maintenance of its portion of the levee.

Dayton Mayor Craig George said that, though the city’s funds are limited, city crews continue to make progress on vegetation removal.

“Our communication with the Corps has been good,” said George, expressing his opinion that there is no imminent risk of the levee being decertified.

According to Columbia County engineer Drew Woods, if the levee is decertified, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be notified, and flood maps in the area adjacent to the levee will be redrawn.

“If that happened, the map would be drawn as if the dike wasn’t there,” Woods said. He said that much of the south side of Dayton, east of the river, would likely be designated a flood plain.

One of the biggest impacts of such a change would be the requirement that homeowners in a flood plain who have mortgages must purchase flood insurance. The cost for even a modest home would likely be over $1,000 per year.

Since 2009 a group of local, state and federal officials has been meeting monthly to discuss ongoing maintenance of the levee. Called the Dayton Levee Roundtable, the group includes officials from the Corps, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA and a representative of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s office. Also in the group are Jones, Woods, George and Steve Martin, director of the Lower Snake River Salmon Recovery board.

Jones acknowledges that the meetings have been important in keeping lines of communication open. However, he says Corps representatives have been insistent in those meetings that more needs to be done to maintain the levee.

During the commissioners’ meeting, Jones and the board discussed the possibility of creating a flood control zone in Columbia County. Woods explained that a zone encompassing the entire county would allow dikes in Starbuck and at Camp Wooten to also be included. And it would mean that all city and county property owners would contribute property tax funding to flood control.

Woods estimates the flood zone could receive more than $100,000 in annual funding without voter approval. The new entity would then be responsible for maintaining the entire length of the Dayton levee.

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