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County and federal officials played to an overflow crowd.
River Forum Hits a Few Snags posted on 12/03/2011
An overflow crowd flooded the hall at a forum designed to answer questions regarding the channel shift of the Sandy River in January.

More than 100 residents listened attentively to details outlined by the Hoodland fire chief, county staff, commissioners, government representatives, and spokesmen from the National Weather Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the Sandy River Basin Watershed Council.

The presentation centered on the past, present and future of the Sandy River.
The forum was met with lukewarm enthusiasm.

“I do like that the county commissioners and Cam Gilmour (executive director of Transportation and Development for the County) are willing to maintain some attention to our flooding issues and subject themselves to the ongoing criticism they deserve through community meetings,” said contractor and Sandy River property owner Kip O’Connor. “I also like that the community took time to show up in support of finding a solution to the flood permit and access issues. It is only crowded meetings that get attention.”

But O’Connor’s faint praise turned quickly to harsh criticism.

“The county was all too willing to throw the Army Corps (of Engineers) under the bus, especially without them in attendance. Blaming them not only for the permit delays but for the fact that county could not apply with their requirements was really (expletive deleted).”

Commissioners were surprised to discover at the meeting that the Army Corps had sent a letter to county (addressed to Gilmour) criticizing the county’s activities in the flood-affected area of Lolo Pass.

The Corps’ letter pointed out that discharge of dredged and fill material in the Zigzag River resulted in the loss of aquatic habitat and loss of energy dissipation functions by removal of vegetation and placement of rock riprap. Reductions in energy dissipation at one location along the river may cause impacts at downstream locations.

The Corps concluded by reminding the county “that the work on Lolo Pass Road remains unauthorized at this time and requests than an after-the-fact permit application be provided to the Corps as soon as possible.”

The Corps’ letter was dated Oct. 25, 2011.
Denials of the letter’s existence and meaning filtered through the forum hosts.

There were many complaints from the audience, including log jams in the river that protect some and threaten others; damage from the January flood that still threatens some homes; and the impossibility of selling a home to flee the scene.

County Commissioner Jim Bernard said they had worked hard to get the permits.

“It’s going to get harder and harder,” he said. “That’s the theme. In many ways our hands are tied.”

The fact that downed trees in the river were a threat to those on the opposite bank, Bernard said “I support private property rights. We can’t go remove their trees.”

“The fact that the county can’t even follow its own FEMA ordinances that they require any flood damaged permittee to adhere to is just criminal,” O’Connor said.

Jay Wilson, hazard mitigation coordinator for the county’s Department of Emergency
Management, reminded the audience that the Sandy River is a dynamic system that dates back to at least the latest eruption of Mount Hood in 1705.

“Lava domes are porous and much of that sediment has been deposited in the Sandy and Zigzag rivers, causing steep slopes, high velocity and shifting channels and banks.”
Wilson concluded that the best protection available is to “get flood insurance. You are all eligible.”

Flood insurance is more important than ever as it is anticipated that river residents are not likely to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds in the future.

O’Connor countered when he took the microphone at the forum.

“The Corps letter says what you’ve done is going to increase flood possibilities. (Your placements) are not anchored, you didn’t raise the bridge … you’ve jeopardized all of us. We want you to have a plan for the next flood. It’s more involved than just re-permitting.”

Recently appointed Commissioner Jamie Damon witnessed her first flood meeting and said it was good to have this forum in advance.

“We must keep talking to find creative solutions,” Damon said. “This conversation is an important first step in looking at the history of flooding in the Sandy River basin. By working with residents, we can address the larger challenge of ensuring future protection for homeowners and businesses.”

Based on the tenor of the meeting and the uneasy truce that exists between residents and rivers, the challenge is great.

by Larry Berteau/MT



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