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Tree plantings in Valley threaten farmland; may cause increased flooding over W-D Road

  • Written by Lisa Allen
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY – One might say it’s a prime example of the “law of unintended consequences.”
 
Hundreds of deciduous and evergreen trees that were planted several years ago in the Valley just north of the King-Snohomish County line as part of a “floodplain restoration project,” have instead been causing drainage and increas-ed flooding problems for local farmers.  Most of the currently affected farmers live near the end of the Snoqualmie River Road, but the effects the 170-acre tree plantation could have on floodwaters could extend as far south as the Woodinville-Duvall Road, causing possibly more closures to the road, as well as damage to the roadway such as what was experienced in 2009 when the asphalt broke apart.
plantationSnoqualmie Valley tree plantation as viewed from above West Snoqualmie Valley Road. (Photo by Lisa Allen)
 
As the trees have grown, the farmers and local agriculture experts say, they are causing more water displacement, and also have served as obstacles that catch logs and other debris. These effects are expected to get worse as the trees grow larger.
 
The trees, the majority of them black cottonwoods, were planted in 2010 as part of a NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Services) project. NRCS, a federal/state agency that is a part of the U.S. Agriculture Department, purchased an easement from the property owner (who had owned the property since 2008) for the project. According to their website, NRCS offers help to landowners with many projects, one of which is the Wetland Reserve Program Easement. This is a conservation easement in perpetuity which would pay 100 percent of the easement value for the purpose of the easement, plus between 75 and 100 percent of the “restoration” costs.
 
Gina Kerzman, a spokesperson with NRCS, explained in a recent email that the property owner applied for a floodplain easement in 2009 under the Emergency Watershed Protection Program–Flood Plain Easement authority, and was deemed eligible and ranked high enough to be approved for funding. According to Snohomish County records, the property owner was paid $426,000 for the project. “The purpose of the easement is to restore, protect, maintain and enhance the functions of the floodplain,” Kerzman explained in the email, adding that permits for tree planting are not required. The email further stated that the black cottonwood is one of several native species planted and that other species were chosen according to what is currently found in the area and adapted to the current hydrologic conditions.
 
Valley farmers contend, however, that cottonwoods are most native to the riverbanks where the land is higher and that the floodplain area is not suitable for a huge monoculture planting.
 
The farm of Glen and Linda Wilcox, at the end of the River Road (the area worst hit during the 1990 Thanksgiving Day flood), is hemmed in on two sides by the extensive tree plantation. The couple keeps 20 beef cattle and five horses on their 23 acres, which was at one time part of a much larger dairy farm that included the land the trees are now growing on. “We remember when it happened, in two weeks it was all planted,” Glen said.  “No studies were done and no one was ever consulted. We have actually seen floodwater pushed backward (backing up from the trees).” 
 
They said they are also seeing increased velocity of floodwaters due to the narrowing areas available for the water as it heads downstream. Linda noted that the ditches become flooded, forcing water into the fields. “We have gotten the runaround,” she said. “We have gotten no answer to these problems. We lost 25 percent of our hay crop the last two years due to wet fields and the shade from the trees.“
 
She noted that water on their property, which used to flow out after a flood, “just swirls around now. There are logs just sitting out there.“
 
“Debris gets into the trees and backs up the water,” Glen said.  “Snohomish County, unlike King County, doesn’t allow critter pads (to protect livestock).  In 2009 we had fourteen feet of water in our front yard and four inches in the main house. The trees were planted because NRCS had been convinced that the land was un-farmable, but winter wheat and beans had just previously been harvested on that same property.”
 
“The trees basically make a dam across the county line,” explained King County Agriculture Commission member Dr. Larry Pickering (a veterinarian).  “NRCS has control of the property but is not managing it. The tree roots have blocked or damaged the culverts so they aren’t working. NRCS is just paying lip service to farmers as part of their fish policy. They want to convert marginal or useless farmland to natural habitat, but in this case the plan was to put in trees that were not native. We want to save fish too, but the recent model indicates a potential flood elevation rise of 4-5 inches in portions of the Snoqualmie Valley floodplain that are located in King County. King County has helped farmers install drain tiles, but of course now they aren’t working.
floodRiver Road farmers Glen and Linda Wilcox are facing increased flooding problems caused by an adjacent tree plantation. Water-filled fields from recent flooding and some of the trees can be seen in the background. (Photo by Lisa Allen)
“We have recommended that the agency make efforts to reduce or modify the existing plantings and the proposed tree plantings. King County generally supports efforts to restore fish habitat but we remain concerned about the unintended consequences of these ‘floodplain restoration projects’ supported by NRCS on Snohomish County farmland. As previous project plantings continue to mature and new plantings are completed, we anticipate greater impacts to King County farmers. Additionally, the projected increase in flood elevation that would result from a combination of projects in the vicinity could significantly exceed the ‘zero-rise’ standard which conflicts with the standard that is required of private landowners to meet when proposing infrastructure improvements to their properties. Lives are at risk as well.”
 
Notes taken from an October meeting of the Ag Commission  -  that would be a basis for a letter to NRCS -  state that the project occurred without the knowledge of adjacent landowners or environmental and flood management staff of King and Snohomish counties and was independent of local conservation or fish recovery efforts. Negative impacts, the notes say, include increased floodwater retention, duration and inundation, impediments to floodway flow and increased wood debris in the floodway.  NRCS also ignored the priorities of existing land use, the notes claim.
 
River Road farmer Steve Van Ess, who raises hay and beef cattle, estimated the total acreage planted in trees in the easement property plus the surrounding area, to be about 250. On a tour of the area, Van Ess pointed out where the drainage tiles had been broken due to tree roots, and noted several fir trees that had died due to the constant moisture in the ground.  Beavers have also taken up residence amongst the trees, causing neighboring farmland to become wet and unusable.  “Trees were planted over drain tiles; the roots got into the tiles so they no longer work,” he said. “We now have non-functional drainage, the drains are overtaxed, the beavers have taken over and we are left with ponding issues. We may see a five-inch rise in water levels in a moderate flood. We need to remove the trees, expand the dredging area and restore function of the old drainage systems.”
 
Much of the land is in what is called the Pearson Eddy Wetland Restoration Project.  The issue was discussed Nov. 8 during a public meeting at the Duvall Fire Station that was requested by the King County Agriculture Commission. John Taylor, assistant director of King County Water and Land Resources (WLR), told those in attendance that there were concerns in 2010 about drainage impacts from the plantings. “I was startled when I saw the modeling (floodwater studies) that were done and saw the projection for (flood) rise,” he said. “We need to meet zero-rise standards.”
 
Speaking rhetorically, Ag Commission member Bob Vos addressed the question on everyone’s minds. “How did this even happen? It’s like a perfect storm. There seemed to be a misunderstanding about the productivity of one of the parcels. But farmers had been farming it. Now the trees are here and there are debris and drainage issues.”
 
He said he volunteers to help farmers with their drainage projects. “We provide funding for these projects,” he said, recalling that when some of the plantings went in the Ag Commission and King Conservation District expressed concern. “We tried to convince NRCS there was a problem, we warned them this was going to happen and they ignored it. At that time NRCS was not sympathetic but lately they seem more willing to work toward fixing the problems. I don’t think trees belong in a floodplain; they are hazardous and we need to get rid of them and replace them with native plants. We don’t need any more studies.”
 
Note: Referring to plants that are actually native to the Valley, it was mentioned during the meeting that an 1883 “walk-through” study described the area as mainly covered in cranberry marshes and lavender.
 
Taylor then noted that WLR modeling of floodwaters as the trees continue to grow show an increase in rise of 2-5 inches. “Our goal is to modify re-vegetation to get it back down to zero-rise. NRCS needs to bear the cost and make things right.” Noting the area is all in Snohomish County, he said the agency needs to mitigate the effects in King County.
 
King County Senior Deputy Ombudsman Elizabeth Hill, who is also an engineer, said she was astounded by the NRCS Finding of No Significant Impact (regarding the tree plantings). “The problem was that hydrogeology was not being considered, the water  table has risen and that water is impacting farms. I felt they were trying to shove the project through.”
 
Regarding possible effects to the Woodinville-Duvall Road, Duvall City Planner Lara Thomas said the city is concerned as well because access to the town is limited to only three roads. “Safe access is important and Duvall will support these efforts [to fix this problem],” she said.
 
Farmer Eunice Kosters, who lives next to Van Ess, recalled the 1990 flood that killed dozens of the family’s dairy cows. “We are in danger,” she said. “Water came in our house, the barn, and killed our animals. We were never even consulted about this.”
 
Also potentially at risk is a tribal archaeological site along the riverbank. The “Biederbost” dig (named after the property owner at the time of the find) was discovered in 1960. According to a site report by the Washington Archaeological Society, artifacts that were found included an impressive yield of native baskets and other items. The report stated that the site was “extensive and has offered a significant contribution” to Washington archaeology.
 
Snohomish County records say the property is currently owned by JRT Holdings Inc. which purchased it in 2013 for $300,000. Owners of adjacent properties include Forterra, a conservation group (200-plus acres), and a hunting club. Additional cottonwood plantings are proposed for the Forterra property, which is another concern for both the farmers and WLR Division.
 
In August, Taylor wrote a letter to the state conservationist in the Spokane office of NRCS regarding their Finding of No Significant Impact Draft Environmental Assessment (FONSI).
 
The lengthy letter reads in part “… While King County generally supports efforts to restore floodplain habitat in the Snoqualmie Valley as part of a regional and comprehensive anadromous (fish that hatch in fresh water and mature in salt water) fish recovery effort, we remain concerned about the unintended consequences of floodplain restoration projects supported by NRCS in Snohomish County on King County farmland. As previous project plantings continue to mature and new plantings are completed, we anticipate even greater impacts to King County farmers.
 
“Additionally, the projected increase in flood elevation that would result from the combination of projects in the vicinity of Pearson Eddy significantly exceed King County’s ‘zero-rise’ standard … we would like to offer some possible mitigation actions that would reduce the short- and long-term impacts to farmland from the habitat restoration projects that have been supported by NRCS over the years.
 
“The recent 2D HecRAS (a hydrologist’s modeling system designed to simulate hydrologic processes of watershed systems) model of restoration efforts in the Pearson Eddy region indicates a potential flood elevation rise of 4-5 inches in portions of the Snoqualmie Valley floodplain located within King County. We recommend that NRCS develop and implement plans to reduce peak flood elevations; such efforts may include modification of existing and proposed tree plantings on Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) lands.”
 
The letter goes on to suggest the agency do more modeling to determine whether tree or soil removal would result in measurable reductions in peak flood elevations.
In a follow-up phone interview, Taylor emphasized that, although WLR  did not receive an official reply to the Aug. 30 letter to NRCS, “meetings are in the planning stage that will include NRCS, the tribes and other agencies to come up with a vegetation plan to reduce flood impacts and protect environmental resources in that stretch of river.”
 
The aforementioned email from NRCS confirmed that the meetings will take place. “NRCS has formed a vegetation management group that includes the Snoqualmie Valley Watershed Improvement District, King and Snohomish counties, the Tulalip and Snoqualmie tribes, Snoqualmie Valley Watershed Salmon Recovery group and easement landowners,” Kerzman wrote. “NRCS is working with the group to discuss vegetation management in the project area.”
 
But with all the contentious issues and numerous agencies involved, only one thing seems clear: planting the trees seemed to be the easy part; fixing the problems they have caused is proving to be a whole lot harder.
 

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