WARRENTON — The Warrenton City Commission will meet with the Skipanon Water Control District on the Eighth Street Dam, hoping to find consensus for new studies into whether the aging structure is useful for flood control.
The city said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service favor more research on the dam on the Skipanon River. The city has temporarily put aside legal questions about ownership and liability, and will instead concentrate on whether tide gates can be restored to test whether the dam can reduce flooding for property owners.
“We are concerned about the anecdotes and the stories and the reports that we’ve received from homeowners and property owners across the city, and we’re pursuing further actions to open a dialogue,” Mayor Henry Balensifer said Tuesday night after the City Commission met privately in executive session.
“We’re not here to sit there with attorneys. We’re not out to sue. What we’re trying to do is have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment,” the mayor said.
In a potential thaw in the dispute, Tessa Scheller, the chairwoman of the water district’s board, said she had sent an email to Balensifer inviting a discussion.
“I regret that somehow we got sideways with the city. I’m sorry for those developments,” Scheller said. “But here we are now, and I think making the best of this is probably useful for both entities.”
She said she was delighted to hear the city is willing to talk. “We might as well get something done for the people, really, instead of throwing money at lawyers.”
The water district operated the dam with the tide gates up after 2012 and removed the tide gates in 2015. Scheller has said the water district did not believe it needed a permit to remove the tide gates, and does not believe the removal led to increased flooding for property owners.
“Goodness, no,” Scheller said.
Anecdotal accounts by some property owners of higher water levels since the tide gates were removed have motivated city commissioners to seek answers. The dam was originally built with the help of the federal government in 1963 as protection for a 10-year flood, but the government later said it is likely only useful in a less-severe two-year flood.
Back to negotiations
The water district is convinced the dam is obsolete and a hazard that should be taken out to improve fish passage and water quality on the river. But the water district needs a permit from Warrenton to remove the dam, a reality that has slowly moved both sides back toward negotiation.
A $1.2 million deal to demolish the dam and build an emergency access bridge for the city over the river imploded last year over flooding concerns.
One sticking point in the negotiation could be who would pay to restore the tide gates and conduct the new research. Since the water district believes it was within its authority to remove the tide gates, and went through the process of approving an engineering plan that calls for taking out the dam, board members will likely look to the city to underwrite any new research.
Warrenton has heard that federal money might be available for studies, but there is no guarantee. The city already spent $112,000 on a Portland attorney who at one point argued that the city owned the dam and should sue the water district for control, but ultimately concluded the dam was likely a federal asset.
Balensifer and City Manager Linda Engbretson have said that the Army Corps and the Natural Resources Conservation Service do not claim ownership of the dam. The city has also softened talk of suing the water district over ownership.
Warrenton will likely ask an expert from the Army Corps to appear at a City Commission meeting and walk commissioners through some of the technical, land use and levee issues involved. One question that has surfaced several times during the dispute is how the dam relates to the city’s levees, which the city wants to certify with the federal government.
Scheller thinks the water district is the rightful owner of the dam, but the water district does not hold title, leaving the dam and two other flood-control structures the district manages on the river under a cloud.
“We’re very happy if the city wants to expend resources, or the Corps wants to expend resources, or NRCS wants to expend resources to get a further study of the flood plain. The city needs it anyway,” she said. “But we are decisively in favor of what is our basic document for control of the district, which is the engineering plan. We spent years putting it together. It’s a reasonable document, and it’s supportable by the facts.”