Property owners hope state politicians can resolve the issueIt was a simple contraption. It was a metal plate attached to the culvert, that sits under Oregon Highway 202. It allowed rainwater from the fields to flow into the Youngs River, which runs along the highway, but kept most of the rising tidewaters from the river and nearby Youngs Bay out of the fields. It was something of a one-way valve.
Then it fell off.
That was in June. Since then, hearts have been broken and tens - perhaps hundreds - of thousands of dollars in private property have allegedly been lost. But the controversy is clouded by questions of who should fix the problem.
Complicating this further is the need to protect endangered species of wild salmon, which require free-flowing tidal wetlands for their development.
The contraption, called a tide-gate, was operating under highway 202 near its intersection with Ordway Lane, a few miles south of Astoria. After it fell off, there was nothing to stop the rising tide in the Youngs River from flooding the nearby farms on the east side of the road.
At least three neighbors have been directly affected. Their land floods at every high tide, twice a day. Although no houses were damaged, neighbors say they lost both a financial and emotional investment in their trees and fields - and had to endure the mosquitoes and stench that came with the flooding last summer.
"It's been heartbreaking ... watching the destruction to our property," said Rod Petteys, who started a tree farm on Ordway Lane with his father, Gary Petteys, and children. He moved there about a year and a half ago to grow black Walnut trees, a potentially valuable wood. About half of his farm has been flooded, and 24 of his trees have been killed, he said. At maturity, each tree was potentially worth $10,000 or more, he said.
"Having this place was a family dream," he said "now that this has happened, this has just completely shattered all of our plans."
Another neighbor on Ordway Lane, Curt Rutherford, planted flowers, evergreens and shrubs on his farm, using it as a large park and recreation area. Much of his property has also flooded, killing most of his trees.
"I don't even want to look down there anymore," he said. "I'm pretty upset about it. I've got so much time into those trees, in pruning them and grooming them."
Petteys estimates about 25 acres have been flooded.
Because the tide-gate was under a state highway, the residents feel the state should fix it. They contacted the Oregon Department of Transportation. According to Petteys, ODOT engineers said they would replace the tide-gate when it received the necessary environmental permits. When nothing was done, Petteys sent ODOT a letter stating the property owners might sue if the state didn't fix it soon.
After that, ODOT stopped talking, Pett-eys said.
"We have contacted them repeatedly, and we get nothing in response. They don't take our calls," he said.
But according to ODOT spokesman Dave Davis, ODOT can't - and won't - replace the tide-gate. Although it was mounted on a state culvert under the highway, ODOT is disavowing any responsibility for it. The state can only spend highway money on projects that benefit the highway, and the tide-gate isn't one of them, Davis said.
Lori Assa - The Daily Astorian
Gary Petteys stands near his flooded property on Rt. 202.
"The tide-gate itself doesn't benefit the highway system, so we can't maintain it because it would be an illegal use of highway funds," he said.
Davis was unsure who originally installed and maintained the tide-gate, but said it may have been ODOT.
The neighbors are enlisting the help of state politicians, including Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Astoria, to attempt to resolve the issue. They hope to meet with Johnson and ODOT within the month.
The residents wanted to replace the tide-gate themselves, but were told they would need to go through an elaborate state and federal environmental permitting process first, and would still have to coordinate with ODOT, according to Mark See, ODOT's transportation maintenance manager for the North Coast in Astoria.
See, who said he is sympathetic to the neighbors situation, believes the recent emphasis federal and state regulators have placed on restoring wetlands for wild salmon may have influenced how the process played out, and will in the future.
Originally, many tide-gates were installed to help reclaim wetlands for agricultural use. But, within the last few years, scientists have come to realize the importance tidal wetlands play as nurseries for juvenile salmon in the lower Columbia River basin. Young salmon use the shallow wetlands as feeding grounds, to hide from larger predator fish, and to adjust to the salinity as they move from fresh water streams to the salty ocean.
"They've had a change in philosophy of how they want to treat the lower reaches of the Columbia," said See, speaking of the environmental community within and outside of ODOT. "They are saying there is a value to the estuary on the inside of the highway."
Recently, there have been several state-funded projects in Clatsop County to allow for better salmon passage and improve water quality in wetlands around tide-gates, including five projects within the last two years along tributaries to the nearby Lewis and Clark River. The projects were managed by the Columbia River Estuary Study Task force and were unrelated to ODOT.
Although See can't say for certain if sensitivity to wetland restoration prevented ODOT from replacing the tide-gate, he admits it may have.
"Because it is one of the first instances of how the new philosophy will be done, we may have done somethings differently than we've done in the past," said See.