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When disaster strikes, call a conservationist

Emergency Watershed Protection Program protects community infrastructure while sustaining quality salmon habitat

When distster strikes, call a conservationist


December of 2015 brought unrelenting storms to an already rain-soaked portion of northwest Oregon, resulting in damaging floods that threatened homes, business, roads and utilities.

High water overflowed river banks and overwhelmed storm drainage systems. Landslides toppled onto roads and threatened homes. Streambanks crumbled as they succumbed to erosion.

The damage prompted a Presidential disaster declaration, signed in February of 2016, to help fund recovery and repair efforts in 13 counties across Oregon.

With significant damage to property and infrastructure in Columbia County, the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) reached out to local conservationists to assist with recovery efforts.

Exposed Sewer Line Triggers Public Safety Risks

At the Veterans community park along South Scappoose Creek in Columbia County, severe streambank erosion exposed a section of pipe carrying sewage for the City of Scappoose. The streambank collapsed at the site of a popular swimming hole, next to a playground.

“We were faced with a public safety risk. We were really concerned about the pipe failing and the risk of discharge. We knew we had to act fast to protect the infrastructure,” said Chris Negelspach, an engineer with the City of Scappoose.

Scappoose is a small community of 6,700 people located about 20 miles northwest of Portland.

The exposed sewer line presented multiple threats to people and the environment. A break in the pipe would cut off sewage services to a third of the city’s residents and ruin pumping infrastructure downstream. It would contaminate the creek and degrade vital habitat for threatened and endangered salmon such as Coho, cutthroat and steelhead.

And the salmon habitat in Columbia County is absolutely critical to protect. The entire county is ‘essential fish habitat’—a designation by the National Marine Fisheries Service that describes all waters and substrate necessary for fish to spawn, breed, feed and grow to maturity.

Also, Columbia County’s two major streams (Scappoose and Clatskanie) boast 100 percent native salmon populations. No hatchery-raised fish here.

“A sewer leak would be catastrophic for this community,” Chris said. “We needed to fix it fast, but we had to have help from agency partners to make it happen.”

So the city turned to their local conservationists for help.

Emergency Watershed Protection Program aids recovery and Conservation

Working with Columbia SWCD, the city of Scappoose—along with other neighboring communities throughout the county—submitted a request for federal funding through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Emergency Watershed Protection Program, or EWP.

EWP is a competitive program that offers financial and technical assistance to help communities protect property and infrastructure in response to natural disasters. NRCS offers up to 75 percent of the repair costs in federal funding and a local sponsor—in this case the SWCD—contributes the remaining 25 percent through cash and in-kind services.

In March of 2016, just a month after the emergency declaration, NRCS secured $3 million in funding to help Columbia County complete 13 projects, including the Scappoose sewer line project.

Construction began in August of 2016 and finished in July of 2017.

As the local sponsor, Columbia SWCD was instrumental in managing this complex effort on a tight timeline.

The process required coordination with many local, state and federal partners to secure the necessary permits, prepare engineering designs, and implement the work on-schedule.

“It’s an emergency program, so we had to move at a quick pace, which is a challenge because federal regulatory agencies don’t always work within those same timelines,” said Kari Hollander, district manager for Columbia SWCD.

“It required a significant amount of collaboration and trust from our partners to pull it all together.”

A Soft Approach to Streambank Stabilization

“Working on this project through the SWCD brings a softer approach to ensure natural protections for salmon habitat and stream health, while also protecting infrastructure,” Kari said.

For example, instead of building a concrete wall around the sewer line, the community wanted a bio-engineered solution that used as many natural materials as possible to protect the stream’s water quality, salmon habitat and aesthetics.

They accomplished this by placing large sections of cut trees along the stream bank, planting willow trees along the waterline, and planting native grasses and shrubs along the banks. They installed a coconut-weave matting to protect the bare soil and retain moisture to feed the seedlings.

“This is not a Band-Aid on the stream bank. We are looking out for the present and the future health of this system,” said Meghan Walter, state hydraulic engineer with the NRCS in Portland. “The rock and woody materials provide short term stability, and the streamside plantings and willow trees will develop strong roots in the soil to support the long term viability of the stream bank.”

Meghan worked closely with the Columbia SWCD and other partners to ensure the engineering components of the project met NRCS technical specifications and aligned with EWP guidelines.

“This EWP project is a great example of how local relationships and strong partnerships can help a community leverage a federal program to address local needs that have unique natural resource objectives,” Meghan said.

With construction finished, the City of Scappoose and its residents can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that their sewer infrastructure is protected and their salmon habitat remains healthy.

“We don’t expect to see anymore failures here,” Chris said.

And the neighborhood youth are happy, too—because their favorite swimming hole beckons.

Words by Tracy Robillard, NRCS Oregon Public Affairs Officer
Video by Robert Hathorne, NRCS Oregon Public Affairs Specialist
Photos by Spencer Miller, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

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