The Mill Creek Flood Control Project — a 7-mile stretch starting at Bennington Lake through downtown Walla Walla and ending at Gose Street in College Place — is well over 70 years old. In that time we as citizens have benefited greatly from the protection it provides us from water pouring over the banks of Mill Creek, the most recent example is the 1996 flood.
But the material used to build the flood-control infrastructure is now reaching the end of its useful life. While the streets and downtown are currently safe and the project is currently fit for normal non-flood operations, actions must be taken soon.
Planning has already started. You might have read about the newly announced federal funding for the new study of the Mill Creek Flood Control Project.
This funding is the culmination of a five-year effort by the Mill Creek Coalition. The Mill Creek Coalition is an ad hoc group of business owners and elected officials who represent Walla Walla County, the city of Walla Walla, Port of Walla Walla, Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Baker Boyer Bank. The Coalition should not be confused with the Mill Creek Work Group or the Washington State University beautification ideas for Mill Creek.
The Coalition was formed because of the complex network of ownerships and rights along the 7-mile stretch of the Mill Creek Project. Ownerships and rights belong to all the entities and/or its constituents listed above. In addition, the federal government also owns and operates Bennington Lake as well as the first mile of the Project.
The Mill Creek Project has been in existence for over 70 years. As a project, it has been a great success, but it now needs to be replaced.
However, as all of you know, we can’t predict when the next flood will occur. The Coalition was formed to proactively start the process to study, strengthen, redesign and/or rebuild the Mill Creek Project before the next flood.
The process included a lot of planning, discussion and commitment by all the entities who were involved. In addition, the process required the special knowledge and collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Coalition especially thanks the USACE office here in Walla Walla for assistance in this process.
The process also required strong bipartisan congressional support. Since the beginning, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., as well as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have worked collaboratively across the aisle to push for federal funding and to name this project a “new study.” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., along with U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., joined in the capital to assure the success of our bid.
After five years of planning we have arrived at the point where a new study has now been authorized, one of only six projects in the nation receiving funding.
I want to discuss the process going forward.
Phase one is a new study that is designed to study the project and determine if there is a need for further federal funds to redesign and rebuild the Mill Creek Project. During the study, the economy of the region, the threat of loss of life, as well as considerations of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) fish, will be examined.
At the end of the three-year study, the Federal Government will decide if there is enough positive impact to warrant the next phase of design and construction.
If the federal government finds there is a federal and economic interest to redesign and/or rebuild the Mill Creek Project, additional federal matching funding could be available for the design and construction phase.
This process will be long and full of public comment, consultation with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and other tribal nations, as well as a commitment by the public to safeguard our community for the future.
In the end, you will be asked the same question the Coalition had to ask ourselves five years ago: “Are you willing to do the hard work of protecting and improving this community for our kids and grandkids so they have the same privilege to call Walla Walla home?”
This means that no one will get 100 percent of what he or she wants out of a potential redesign and construction of the Mill Creek Project.
The important thing is that if we don’t commit now and start the process, the opportunity to safeguard the community will have passed. This is truly a legacy we will leave for those future citizens who aren’t even born yet and we will never meet.
The same commitment previous generations of Walla Wallans made over seven decades ago for us.
Mark H. Kajita, president and chief executive officer of Baker Boyer Bank, is chairman of the Mill Creek Coalition.