Waitsburg flooding

The Touchet River spilled over its banks in February 2020 and flooded parts of Waitsburg.

Early last year, the city of Waitsburg suffered a devastating flood. After several sections the Touchet River Levee, an earthen bank of mixed rock and dirt, washed away, the waters poured in. Mud filled basements, water ruined drywall and a number of homes were lost.

Now, the city is trying to build back better. But to do that, Waitsburg needs buy-in from property owners along the river’s northern bank.

When the levee was originally built, the governing body in charge of the project didn’t retain access rights to the earthen wall, wrote city administrator Randy Hinchcliffe in an email. Now, the land around the levee is essentially considered private property. Some repairs have already been made, but the bulk of the work that needs to be done is on these private lots.

Even though the levee sits within city limits, and the city has taken on the task of trying to rebuild the damage, city staff don’t have the legal right to access the property.

“Being that the city doesn’t own any of the property, nor do we have any access rights, the city has no obligation to maintain or repair it currently,” Hinchcliffe wrote, “but (the city) has an interest in doing flood mitigation work; including the repair and future maintenance of this levee.”

That lack of permanent access is at least partly to blame for the levee’s failure last year, because city staff couldn’t maintain it, Hinchcliffe wrote.

Though most of the flooding of residences stemmed from a single section of collapsed levee, the earthen wall failed in multiple places. Hinchcliffe estimates that about 1,000 feet of the levee needs to be rehabilitated. But a repaired levee could still eventually fail, so the city also wants permanent access rights to the levee from surrounding property owners so that proper maintenance can be conducted.

In addition, fully rehabilitating the levee would mean that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would inspect the structure annually; if the levee was properly maintained and deemed “acceptable,” the Army Corps would pay for repairs in the event of a future failure, Hinchcliffe wrote. Because the levee had fallen into disrepair before it failed, the cost of repairs wasn’t covered.

So far, around 75% of property owners have agreed to grant the city access rights for free.

“About 75% are on board,” Council member Jillian Henze said in an interview. “But unless they have 100%, we probably won’t do the project. So let’s get everybody to the table and talk about what’s in front of us.”

There are a number of reasons that the remaining stakeholders have not yet agreed to donate access easements to the city, Hinchcliffe wrote.

Some want the city to purchase the easement, which the city does not have funding to do, Hinchcliffe wrote in an email to stakeholders. Others don’t want the easement to be permanent. The state of Washington also owns some of the land near the levee, and getting approval for a permanent easement without compensation has been a slow process, Hinchcliffe noted.

The city hopes to convince the remaining individual property owners to agree to donate access rights to the city at a stakeholder meeting 7 p.m. Sept. 20 at the Waitsburg Lions Club building.

If the stakeholder meeting doesn’t secure the community support needed by the city, there are still plans to build a temporary setback levee, which could help somewhat to hold back floodwaters. But only a fully repaired levee could provide long-term protection, Henze said.

“This is a big effort to bring all neighbors to the table and provide a potentially life-saving, and certainly property-saving, repair in preparation of the next flood event in our town,” Henze wrote in an email.

Emry Dinman can be reached at emrydinman@wwub.com or 425-941-5829.

Reporter covering agriculture, Walla Walla city and county government, and other topics.

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