WARRENTON — Warrenton will likely seek federal expertise on a computer-generated hydrology model of the Eighth Street Dam with the tide gates on to help gauge the aging structure’s value for flood control.
Mayor Henry Balensifer and city commissioners said Tuesday that they want more study before reconsidering the Skipanon Water Control District’s attempt to remove the dam to improve fish passage and water quality on the Skipanon River.
The water district operated the dam with the tide gates up since 2012 and took the tide gates off in 2015 with the expectation the dam would eventually be removed as a hazard.
Lance Helwig, the levee safety officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, told city commissioners Tuesday night there is interest at the Army Corps and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in new modeling of the dam. The Army Corps is the federal partner on the city’s levee system, while the Natural Resources Conservation Service is the former federal partner of the water district on the dam.
The research, which would likely be financed by Warrenton, potentially with federal and state grant money, could help break a stalemate between the city and the water district over the future of the dam.
“One of the beauties of having a model is you can do all sorts of things without actually physically going out and doing that,” said Shane Cline, the levee safety program manager for the Army Corps in Portland. “So I think it is possible to develop a model that represents a condition with the tide gates on.”
Fight for control
Warrenton had declared an emergency last December, describing the dam as a risk to public safety and property, and asked the Army Corps to investigate whether the water district improperly removed the tide gates. The city, which had threatened to sue the water district and take control of the dam, wanted to put the tide gates back on for flood control.
Over the past few months, however, it became clear that the Army Corps would not intervene on behalf of Warrenton. The city carefully walked back its legal threats and agreed to meet with the water district on a solution.
Helwig and Cline said Tuesday night that the Army Corps has no authority over the dam, which was built in 1963 with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and operated and maintained for 54 years by the water district.
“Our levees here were specifically authorized under the Corps’ authorizations and appropriations,” Helwig said, “and that dam was not part of that levee authorization.”
The Army Corps also assured Warrenton that there appears to be no damage to the levees related to the tide gate removal at the dam. The city is going through the lengthy process of getting the levees certified by the federal government for a 100-year flood, and the Army Corps said the dam, while built separately from the levees, is part of the broader flood-control landscape.
“I think it would be good to look at both the dam and the levee as a system, and not just the dam or not just the levee,” Cline said.
Earlier Tuesday, city commissioners and water district board members met at City Hall to discuss a compromise on the dam. The work session, moderated by Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, was intended as a fresh start after a $1.2 million deal to remove the dam and construct a single-lane bridge over the river for city emergency access dissolved last year into a political and legal confrontation.
While Balensifer and Commissioner Tom Dyer pressed for a new study on the dam that might reassure residents concerned about flooding, water district board members defended previous studies that found that removing the dam would not significantly increase flooding.
“What I’m saying is it doesn’t hurt to be certain,” Dyer said. “And we’re never going to be 100 percent.”
Tessa Scheller, the chairwoman of the water district’s board, said there is no evidence the dam has ever worked as intended. She said the structure — originally built for a 10-year flood, then later downgraded as protection for a two-year flood — actually poses a flood risk to property owners by trapping water upriver. “It floods us,” she said. “The Eighth Street Dam floods us. It doesn’t protect us.”
Warrenton, while backing off on ownership claims to the dam, has some leverage because the water district cannot remove the dam without a city permit. The water district would also likely be unable to convince previous partners — the Bonneville Power Administration and the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce — to help finance another project unless the city was an eager participant.
“Someone’s got to bend here a little bit,” Bergin said.