It was 6 a.m. Friday when Julie Gullett and her family decided to evacuate their home in Centralia, where they operate a small farm and physical therapy business.

As the water from heavy rains and snowmelt pooled on their land near the Skookumchuck River, they left in the dark with their three sheep and two goats loaded in the back of their truck. The chickens were left behind — a gamble they took hoping the ground was high enough for them to survive.

The confluence of the Chehalis, Newaukum and Skookumchuck rivers, combined with snow melt and hard soils, make the threat of flooding in the Chehalis River Basin a constant.

Heavy rains and quickly warming temperature pushed the rivers close to and over record levels this week, swamping the region and shuttering a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 on Friday. The hourslong closure came at the same time as all four mountain passes remain shut until at least Sunday, effectively cutting the Puget Sound region off from the rest of the state.

Gullett and her husband, Adam, bought their property 10 years ago, knowing it was in the flood plain in the Chehalis River Basin. Groundwater often collects on the surface of their clay and silt soil, but they’d avoided any major damage over the previous decade. They even felt comfortable enough to build an in-home clinic where Adam could receive physical therapy patients.

I-5 reopens after flooding closed 20-mile stretch in Chehalis for several hours
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But two days ago, the groundwater began to deepen. They started running pumps all day, but their largest failed. As it became clear the water would not recede, Julia canceled physical therapy appointments and they began to construct a flood wall out of sandbags and plastic.

It was not enough, so Julie, Adam, and their three children left to stay in an RV on their neighbor’s land. They’ve yet to survey the damage.

“There’s an enormity to facing something like this,” said Gullett. “The truth is you can plan and you can prepare and you can be aware that when you purchase a home in the floodplain this is a risk. But it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.”

Pass closures prevent travel between east and west sides of Washington state

After devastating floods in 2007 and 2009 that shut down portions of I-5 for days and caused millions of dollars of damage, Washington legislators in 2016 passed House Bill 2856 to assess and implement strategies to reduce flood damage and improve aquatic species habitat.

According to the website of the Office of Chehalis Basin, which was established following passage of the bill, local-scale flood protection and habitat restoration actions have already been implemented.

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OCB said more than 100 “on-the-ground projects” have been completed or are underway, and the Chehalis Basin Strategy has begun to make progress on a long-term flood damage reduction roadmap.

Those projects include both habitat restoration and flood damage reduction, with some having dual benefits, according to state Ecology Department spokesperson Curt Hart.

Since 2017, Hart said, the state has invested $50.1 million to complete 38 flood reduction projects. They include projects designed to reduce the impact of floods, such as rock and wood armoring of a sewage plant in Montesano in danger of eroding, or building elevated pads in fields intended to offer safe haven for dairy cows.

Quinault Indian Nation opposes new dam on Chehalis, seeks alternatives

In the Chehalis Basin, projects to reduce flood risks involve dikes and levees intended to protect structures by diverting water around them. One such project is the north shore of the Chehalis levee project in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, which the state has allocated $14 million to finance but still needs federal funding to move ahead.

Those levee networks are designed to protect 2,000 properties and 360 businesses from floods, according to Hart.

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In 2021, a $70 million funding level for basin projects was approved by the Legislature, and endorsed by the Chehalis Basin Board.

The frequency of the flooding has caused state officials to reassess what level of flood protection is needed for communities. Typically, that projection is supposed to withstand a 100-year flood mark, but given the frequency of how often that mark has been reached in recent decades, that may not be sufficient, Hart said.

Five of the largest floods in the record history of the Chehalis Basin occurred over the last 30 years, which does not include the current flooding.

Under climate change models, flooding in this century is expected to become more frequent and more severe.

As a member of the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority, Edna Fund feared the worst when this week’s forecasts showed heavy rains and snowmelt. She bore witness to catastrophic flooding in the region in 2007 and still remembers the strange silence of I-5.

She worries apathy toward the prospect of flooding has settled in since 2007. “This wakes people up,” she said of this week’s havoc. “This is still a problem.”

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Mitigating flooding in the river basin is crucial to the entire state, said Fund. When I-5 is closed, it chokes off services and commerce to the rest of Western Washington.

“The closure of Interstate 5 … continues to add to the element of how our flooding here affects the rest of the state, when people can’t get through the most traveled road in Washington state,” she said.

In recent years, the flood authority has looked closely at building a water retention facility — a dam-like structure that’s only put to use in instances of flooding. Doing so, said Fund, could cut down the number of days I-5 is closed, from three or four, to one. Locally, the project could protect more than 1,000 vulnerable structures in the basin, according to a draft environmental impact statement created by the state Department of Ecology.

“If we can help all people up and down the basin, the better we are,” said Fund. “This event we’re having right now redoubles my passion.”

Hart said an environmental impact statement on the water retention project is expected to be complete by 2023. It will detail the expected impact of the facility, and potential mitigation, but won’t include a recommendation of whether the project should move forward.

That will be for the independent Chehalis board to decide, according to Hart.

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Penny Mauel and her husband have raised beef near the Newaukum river for 30 years. Flooding is a part of life, said Mauel, and something they expect to deal with.

Still, she doesn’t remember flooding on their property this severe since 1996. On Friday, Mauel said she could see part of her property still covered in water. “I’m left with a heck of a mess,” she said.

And yet, she remained calm.

“I have lived with flooding my entire life,” she said. “I know that this will happen. The water will go back down. And if we go banging off the edges, we’re not going to be able to handle it like we need to.”