The Lawyer Creek levee topped the monthly agenda of the Lewis County Local Emergency Planning Committee at Kamiah.
Rob Feely of Federal Emergency Management Administration provided a presentation that dipped into the history and topography of Lawyer Creek as well as some of the political and financial challenges blocking repair efforts of flood damaged sections of the 8,600-foot long levee.
The levee was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1960 and Feeley said there are now 239 structures with a property value of $39 million on the north or Lewis County side of the creek. Most of the property threatened by flooding is on the north side, but there’s some on the Idaho County side, too.
Once built, the Corps handed over maintenance to a local sponsor, either the city of Kamiah or Lewis County. The Corps’ requirement for the city and/or county to perform regular maintenance on the levee as a condition to receive future funding for repairs was alleged to have not been followed, according to Feeley.
“Back in 2009 the Corps came out and took a look at that levee and said it didn’t really meet standards of what a levee needed to look like and so it was removed from that rehabilitation program due to the erosion and vegetation they found on it,” said Feeley. “That’s important because now that there’s more damage to it, it takes one major potential funding source out of play because the Corps can’t pay to fix this levee now.”
Feeley noted that the Lawyer Creek basin’s steep topography makes for fast water flows and very minimal warning time for floods. “If you look out at the main stem of the Clearwater River here, that drains a lot of country and a lot of it’s at high elevation and so when it’s flooding you can see that coming from a period of time in advance because of all of that elevation you have to work with and how much time it takes for the water to get to here and that’s not really the case with Lawyer Creek.”
The creek encompasses 137,000 acres from the Cottonwood Butte area to Kamiah. Though not a large area, the canyon it travels is very steep. “In the upper sections of it, it drops 105 feet per mile and closer to Kamiah it drops 60 feet every mile and that’s really steep and so what that means is it’s running really fast when it gets down here and so what that means is fast water is more damaging to things like levees than water that moves a lot slower,” said Feeley.
“The elevation that feeds Lawyer Creek is another important piece of the basin,” he continued. “You know the Camas Prairie up there is 2,500-3,000 feet elevation so if it gets snow, if the ground is frozen and it gets rain on top of that it melts, it’s a steep basin… You can see flooding here in as quick as 12 hours which is a really fast response flood basin which doesn’t give you a lot of time to prepare for something ’cause when it happens, it happens.”
Lawyer Creek presently has no stream gauge “which means you can’t really keep an eye on it without somebody physically looking,” added Feeley.
The U.S. Geological Survey is considering installing one.
Damaging floods from Lawyer Creek have been chronicled since the early 1900s. Three large episodes were observed in 1912, 1948 and 1996.
Feeley said the 2015 fires have greatly impacted flood risks today. “Soils are no longer able to hold themselves up, they’re more subject to erosion and that brings a lot of sedimentation and rocks downstream. When that channel fills up with all that debris it gives that channel less capacity for water to flow through which makes it easier for it to spill out of its banks.”
Lewis County was included in a federal disaster declaration last year as a result of the flooding. Five other counties and the Nez Perce Tribe were included in that declaration.
“That brings FEMA to the table, but it doesn’t allow FEMA to do everything because that levee was built by the Corps and so one federal agency can’t pay to fix something that was built by another federal agency. That money can’t mix,” said Feeley. “But there are some things that they can do and so that’s what we met with these gentlemen to see what options are there to do some emergency protective measure to not fix that levee permanently but to at least keep it out of that water treatment facility which is really important to a lot of people.”
One option included installing hot-dipped galvanized welded defensive Hesco Barriers, but some questioned whether that might make matters worse.
“I think one of the other big issues with this whole thing is we’ve got to keep this conversation going; we can’t let it stagnate because if we do people forget about the whole thing and it just, it gets overlooked again until there’s another event,” said Bob West, Lewis County Emergency Management coordinator.
Other discussion items included the reported need for a bigger backup generator for the water plant.
An emergency alert siren may be installed at the drinking water facility where there’s a backup generator so if the power goes out it will still work. There was discussion about how loud the siren is and how far it can be heard and whether people will know what it means or not.