One bend of the Stillaguamish River is a known danger for slides

ARLINGTON — This spring, Juanita Eanes watched her lawn disappear.

Eanes lives with her husband, Keith Eanes, in a manufactured home on a rural lot between Arlington and Granite Falls.

They bought their home and 4.6-acre wooded lot overlooking the South Fork Stillaguamish River in 2003, believing they’d found their own little bit of paradise.

But starting in 2007, they’ve been losing that paradise bit by bit, as one chunk of sodden earth after another eroded and tumbled 100 feet down into the river below.

“We just progressively kept losing it,” she said. The erosion accelerated this spring.

Eanes lives above a nearly 180-degree bend in the river known as the Trangen Meander.

On Eanes’ property on the right bank, what used to be a slope down to the river is now a sheer cliff of clay and sandy soil.

A similar situation played out at a neighbor’s house to the west, where Phillip and Susan Burk estimate they have lost about one-third of their property’s 6.6 acres.

In Snohomish County, an estimated 30,000 people make their homes in landslide zones. But for most people most of the time, the danger to life and property lies hidden, often for the entire period they live in the area.

Randolph Sleight, the chief engineering officer for Snohomish County’s Department of Planning and Development Services, visited the Eaneses in early April to evaluate threats to their houses after seeing a television report about their plight.

In the Eaneses’ case, the danger was very real. The building code requires a setback from the edge of 50 feet or half the height of a drop-off, whichever is greater. Most of that setback was already gone.

“We flagged the limits, which at the time of the visit was still meeting the setback, barely,” Sleight said.

He also advised the Eaneses to evacuate if the slide went beyond that limit.

A similar situation was developing on the Burks’ property, where the bank was 184 feet from their two-story log house.

When Sleight returned to the area May 28, the bank was just 113 feet from the Burks’ house. On the Eanes’ property, the warning flags had fallen down the slope.

In the Northwest, rain plus hills equal a constant danger of landslides, especially in the winter and spring. Small, slow-moving slides are not unusual and can bury property or temporarily block roads and rails.

The deadly March 22 slide near Oso was an outlier in size, speed and loss of life. After the debris filled the valley of the North Fork Stillaguamish, there were 43 dead, including one whose body has not been found.

Policy makers are forming a plan that might lead to buyouts of the properties affected by the Oso slide, but there are no universally applied methods or policies when a hillside on private property gives way.

In 2009, Snohomish County identified the Trangen Meander as the largest single source of fine sediment in the South Fork Stillaguamish River, which posed health and habitat danger to native salmon.

In December that year, a consulting firm hired by the county released a report studying the slide there to determine if the county should take action to reduce erosion of the hillside into the river.

The consultant, AMEC Earth &Environmental Inc., which has offices in Bothell, identified two courses of action.

One would be to shift the channel of the river and stabilize the steep slopes of the hillside, a project that would cost $2.6 million for construction alone — not including planning, permitting and further studies required by law.

Another alternative, costing $1.3 million — again, just for construction — would be to create a new river channel, away from the right bank of the bend in the river, probably in the location of a smaller overflow channel near the left bank.

Snohomish County has not pursued either course yet.

Shifting the river’s course poses a risk that the change won’t hold. Aerial photography included in the AMEC report dating back to 1933 shows the river continually shifting its channel through the bend, at times carving through the middle of a sandy bar, at others hugging one or the other bank.

Starting in 2007, the first pieces of what is now a significant logjam were visible on the left bank, just north of the bend.

That logjam, Sleight suggested, has intensified the river’s attack on the south bank, right below the Burk and Eanes properties. Over the past five years the river has moved south more than 200 feet, Sleight said.

“It’s effectively blocking channel migration back to the north,” Sleight said.

Removing the logjam is another matter entirely.

Steve Thomsen, director of the county’s Public Works department, said his staff has been in contact with the Burks about that possibility.

“We told them that we don’t have any jurisdiction to go in and remove wood from the stream,” Thomsen said. He referred Burk to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which issues permits for work done in the state’s rivers and streams.

Fish and Wildlife’s role, however, is to review projects of other groups or agencies for impact to fish life and habitat, said Dave Brock, the regional habitat program manager.

For emergency projects, or when an agency is overwhelmed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could be called. That was the case during the response to the Oso mudslide, when the Corps built a berm along the North Fork Stillaguamish River to reduce flooding upstream of the slide.

But the Army Corps hasn’t been called to work on the Trangen Meander, and the Corps doesn’t provide direct assistance when only private property is endangered.

“Generally, those emergencies have to do with threats to infrastructure,” said Patricia Graesser, public affairs chief for the Corps’ Seattle district.

Which brings the issue back to the county, whose role concerning private property is usually limited to offering advice, Thomsen said.

Any river project these days, he added, requires what’s known as a bioengineered solution, involving rocks or woody debris to help preserve fish habitat. That can get expensive, Thomsen said.

Because insurers don’t offer landslide insurance, and because the government’s interest often stops at a property line, the most that many private owners can do in the face of overwhelming natural forces is get out of the way.

That’s what the Eaneses and Burks did.

When a large chunk of bank collapsed May 11, Phillip Burk started the process of moving his home.

He took out loans, got a permit from the county and hired Nickel Bros. to move his house about 75 yards from the advancing slide.

He and his family have been living in a rented camper trailer for a month.

Juanita Eanes is retired, and her husband works as an upholsterer. Moving their home would have cost up to $20,000, which is well outside their means, she said.

Nickel Bros. granted the Eaneses a hardship exception and moved their house about 50 feet back, no charge.

Whether it’s enough, or if the move just bought them a few more years, Juanita Eanes doesn’t know.

“We just live one day at a time, and thank God we made it through,” Eanes said.

“I love living here and I would not want to live anywhere else,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165;

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