Fractured dike near Gold Bar poses flooding danger
By LESLIE MORIARTY
GOLD BAR — With a backdrop of a crystal-clear blue sky and no rain, Mike McCallister stands atop a dike that holds the Wallace River on course.
"It’s a beautiful day," he said. "But in the back of my mind, I can’t help but think that the next time I stand here, it will be pouring buckets of rain, it’ll be windy and my Thanksgiving dinner will be on the table at home waiting for me."
McCallister, coordinator of emergency management for Snohomish County, lucked out this year, but has had to spend several past Thanksgivings thigh-deep in flood waters.
In 1990, Snohomish County suffered the worst flooding on record during Thanksgiving weekend. Last year on Thanksgiving weekend, McCallister was high atop the dike along the Ebey Slough near Lake Stevens, watching sandbag walls being built to keep slough waters from washing out the Lake Stevens sewer plant.
And while Thanksgiving weekend this year may turn out better than other years, he’s still worried about some "hot spots" in the county that have the potential to flood this winter.
The biggest problem may be the dike at Gold Bar.
"We think this dike was built in the 1950s as an access route for someone who had a home up on the hill," he said. "It’s not been maintained in the past 40 or 50 years. If it goes, there are people who will be getting their feet wet."
McCallister said that on a well-maintained dike, trees are only permitted to grow to a diameter of about six inches. On this dike, some of the trees are two feet in diameter.
In fact, it was a tree of that diameter that fell into the Wallace River and pulled several feet of the dike with it. A property owner in the area discovered that last spring and alerted the city.
But Gold Bar Mayor Ken Foster said even though the dike is in the city, it is not the city’s responsibility.
"Nobody is certain who built it," Foster said, and McCallister agreed. "If the city were to go in there now and claim responsibility for it, the city would be liable if anything happened. We’ve been advised (by the city attorney) not to go there."
McCallister, who also was contacted by the nearby property owners, said the dike isn’t the county’s property either. And when he checked with the Army Corp of Engineers, they have no records that they built the dike.
In most cases, area property owners form diking districts and pay property taxes to the district for the purpose of keeping up the dike, McCallister said. That’s what happened near Lake Stevens and it was that diking district that took charge when repairs were needed there last year.
Since there is not a diking district at Gold Bar, McCallister said the property owners (a cannery, a developer who plans to build 54 homes on property south of the dike and several homes along Moonlight Drive), are without a government agency to take charge of the needed repairs.
"With a local government leading the way, the repairs can happen more smoothly," he said. "That agency can apply for county and state grants for flood maintenance. That agency also has staff to do the required environmental and engineering studies and get the permits.
"If an individual had to do all that it could take $30,000 to $50,000."
County officials think the actual work would only be a few thousand dollars, once all the hoops were jumped, to repair the dike.
But Tony Nahajski, county surface water management, said the county’s position is that the dike belongs to the city of Gold Bar because it is in the city limits.
"We have no jurisdiction to be there," he said. "We would help with the steps to qualify to get money for repairs, but we can’t take the lead."
Mayor Ken Foster said the city isn’t trying to duck responsibility.
"But we don’t have any money to do the repairs," he said.
Meanwhile, some stop-gap measures have been taken.
A property owner and the city of Gold Bar worked to cut the tree that had fallen. Then the root ball and stump of the tree were pulled back into the dike and anchored with heavy cords. It was stabilized with "rip rap," large rocks and a load of gravel.
"We deemed it an emergency measure," said Dave Schmidt, Gold Bar city administrator. "It is a temporary stabilization because of an immediate threat to property."
But McCallister said it is obvious that if the area gets heavy rain or a heavy snow melt, the Wallace River will fill and erode away more of the dike. The river may also cut a new path that would leave water running all the way to Creek Road, endangering most of Gold Bar.
Cliff Ifft, engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps can’t do anything to fix the dike until a local government agency takes responsibility for requesting funding and help from the federal government.
"Nothing can be done without a local sponsor," he said. "Until then, this is considered private property and we don’t have the authority to help a private land owner."
McCallister said he and volunteers with emergency management have been through training this year and had weather officials tell them that this is an "El Nino Neutral" year. That means that any weather pattern, including more moisture than normal, is possible.
"That’s why I am afraid that we’ll be out there sandbagging and declaring an emergency in order to get some help," he said.
In Snohomish County, 5.89 inches is the normal amount for November. Temperatures also matter, weather officials said. This area can be expected to be equal, more, or less than the average temperature of 45.3 degrees in November.
"Certainly, there’s the chance of flooding," the official said. "Big floods happen in neutral years. But that doesn’t mean they will happen."
The situation is discouraging to McCallister.
"The funny part is that I know there is money at the county and the state level to do the repairs," he said. "But it’s a jurisdictional dispute. Nobody wants to stand up and say "It’s mine and I’ll fix it."
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