Courtesy of the West Hayden Island News
The Press, May 10, 1972
Columbia Slough-should it be saved or paved?
By Irene Bradfield
Last week, Part I of this series dealt with the current flood threat on Columbia Slough, the planned Rivergate development and the efforts of small landowners to keep the slough open for navigational and recreational uses. This week we will explore the current controversy over plugging the slough on the west end as emergency flood control and will outline some of the history of this waterway.
This week the Corps of Engineers began a sand fill in the Columbia Slough about 3,000 feet upstream from its confluence with the Willamette River.
The fill is being made because of the flood threat in the area, the corps says, and it maintains that the plug is only temporary. In addition to blocking off the slough, the corps will also take measures to protect the railroad embankment at the west edge of Delta Park golf course. Total cost of the project is expected to be about $50,000. This cost, the corps said, is sufficient to install the fill, pay pumping costs and remove the plug.
This action was met with expressions of dismay from those who have fought to keep the slough open and who have sought improvement of dikes rather than the drastic remedy of sand fill. Environmentalists point to the threat to water quality as the slough, plugged on both ends, will again become a stagnant, polluted body of water. Realists say the project is an unnecessary gamble. Dikes held last year when river stages were 22 feet, and with predictions this year for large volumes of water but not extremely high stages, suspicions are aroused that the plug is being put in because the Port of Portland wants it that way.
Jim Bigelow, president, Columbia Slough Development corp. (CSDC), an organization formed to save the slough said: "Is this another device from the Port of Portland to get the slough closed permanently?"
Bigelow and others representing the CSDC met with Col. Paul D. Triem, District engineer of the Portland Corps of Engineers office, on Wednesday of last week to protest the sand fill and to seek alternatives.
"The colonel graciously gave us time to talk over the problems on the slough, and what alternatives there might be to plugging it." Bigelow said after the meeting. He added that Col Triem told the CSDC group, "I give my word as an officer of the U.S. Army that this is a temporary measure and it will come out when the water goes down."
According to Bigelow the colonel guaranteed this action, and said the plug would have to come out as the cost of pumping in case of flood would be astronomical. So large, according to the colonel, that the U.S. Treasury could not pay the power bill.
In Bigelow's words, plugging the slough is a gamble-there might be a flood, there might not be. "We have had years like this before" (cool weather and sudden warm-up with consequent large volumes of snowmelt) "and the dikes have held.
Forecasts for the Columbia River Basin according to the Corps of Engineers, indicate this year's runoff volume will be the largest since 1894, the year of the Columbia's largest flood on record. However, this year's flood crest is expected to reach 21-23 feet at the Vancouver gauge.
Regarding the dikes, Bigelow stated that they should have been finished and improved 20 years ago, but they weren't, it should be done now.
"Rather than plugging the slough, we say close Schmeer Road, across the street form the Northgate Motel, fill on land there owned by the state, where there is no right-of-way required, no cost.
The diking district has been unable to get right-of-way from the motel owner who, according to Terry deSylvia, attorney for CSDC, wants $1 million for his property. In addition the owner, deSylvia said, built into the dike side and said he didn't need a permit to do it. This is the site of. . .
According to the Corps of Engineers' spokesman, this department's policy is to perform flood control works in cooperation with local people, not to condemn property and go ahead regardless of local property owners' wishes. Certain assurances must be given the corps, such as right-of-way (easements) and agreements that the corps will not be responsible for damages due to construction of a particular project. Also, the local entity must agree to maintain and operate the completed project, and make highway, bridge and utility alterations.
Although local property owners deplore the lack of strengthened dikes, and the lack of leadership in adequate district, assessments to pay the cost, the fact remains that it is now too late, in view of this spring's flood threat, to build up levees. The Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for flood control, is taking what it deems the only alternative because of the time element-plug the slough and prevent Willamette and Columbia flows from entering.
However, the slough is part of the drainage system for 53 square miles of North Portland and Multnomah County surface waters. Multnomah County Drainage District No. 1, extending to Gresham, drains 8,400 acres in the district as well as 11,600 additional acreage. Pumping must be continued 12 hours a day at the rate of 165,000 gallons per minute in this district alone to prevent flooding of such areas as the Portland Airport.
To allow a permanent plug in the slough for flood protection for Rivergate (most of which is on the flood plain), plus a levee, floodwall and pumping plant would cost about $6.5 million, according to Corps of Engineers report on alternatives. Other alternatives will cost up to $7.2 million the Corps estimates.
The high cost of development on a flood plain is thus pointed out. Plans are going ahead, according to a representative of the Corps of Engineers, because the North Portland peninsula is the largest piece of metropolitan waterfront property capable of being developed economically for industrial purposes.
According to the DMJM report, in a paragraph labeled "Community Impact," it is stated that by 1990 industries at Rivergate would employ about 25,000 which would result in a growth of 150,000 people over a 23-year period.
This influx of people in the area will require additional highway access. The proposed Columbia Freeway extending along the south side of the slough, and joining with the proposed Rivergate Freeway will connect the Port of Vancouver, Hayden Island and Rivergate, and via a Willamette bridge and Tualatin tunnel, the Beaverton-Hillsboro section.
Chapter VIII, Transportation, DMJM report, states: "The importance of the Rivergate Freeway to the ultimate development of the Rivergate Industrial District cannot be stressed too strongly. The circulation system without the Rivergate Freeway will not handle the late afternoon peak hour traffic when Rivergate is developed to the projected 1990 employment level."
Building on the Columbia Slough flood plain has been a fact for more than 50 years, with attempts to protect the area dating back to about 1910. This was the year when a levee system was built and drainage pumps installed. About 1918 the city dredged a channel from the slough to the Columbia River at the east end of the present Columbia Edgewater golf course in an effort to increase flow in the slough, which was then, as now, operating as a sewage canal for a wide area.
Over the years, building on the flood plain increased. World War II brought the necessity to house war workers from the shipyards. Vanport was built, but was flooded out in 1948.
In 1950 an opportunity arose to enhance the status of the slough. It was declared by congress to be a navigable stream of the United States, and a project was authorized to widen, deepen and straighten the channel. However, the project was never undertaken, due to the lack of a local sponsor and local matching funds of $200,000.
It is this authorized project which must be de-authorized if the slough is permanently closed. Closure will require congressional action, because of the authorization and because of the status of the stream as a federal waterway.
In the 1950's, after another flood which pointed up the need to improve the slough's levee system, the Corps of Engineers, to save the expense of such improvements, plugged the eastern end of the slough, near the golf course. Flushing action in the slough has been limited to the drainage pumped in from Multnomah County Darinage District No 1 at its upper end.
Since the 1950s, industrial expansion and population density added to the pollution of the slow-moving waterway. In 1967 the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's new permit system of discharge of organic materials into the slough, and construction of sewers since, has resulted in improved water quality, as detailed in part I of this series.
Reclamation of the slough has been advancing, but is dependent upon a free flowing course. Closure, even a temporary one, may impair water quality seriously, slough landowners say.,
The CSDC maintains that if the slough is not preserved, loss to firms located there now will be substantial, perhaps even fatal. In addition to the economic aspects, developmental possibilities for recreation, boat building, marinas and fishing, and ultimately swimming and scuba diving, are cited. Also the DEQ, in its report on water quality, recognized many beneficial uses in the fish and wildlife categories.
According to Multnomah County Commissioner Mel Gordon, chairman of the Columbia Slough task force currently studying alternative solutions to its problems, this week's development of installation of the temporary fill has no bearing on the ongoing work of the committee.
"There will be no change from the ongoing discussions on the use of the lower slough in regard to land use," Gordon said, and he added that he is open-minded on the question.
"I have no agreements or understandings with the Port on land use. If our discussions show that the slough should be preserved for recreation or whatever, that is the way our recommendations will go."
The May 12 meeting is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at the Port of Portland's 13th floor auditorium in the Lloyd Building.