Steering towards flood resilience with consensus-building: stakeholder facilitation and the case of the Chehalis River Basin

Next week, I’ll be at the American Water Resources Association (AWRA)’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon participating in a panel discussion on proactive flood and drought management in the United States.  I was contracted earlier this year to write the corresponding AWRA report (shameless plug alert!) profiling case studies of innovative flood and drought responses. This was a great opportunity for me to become familiar with some of the best models of water resources management across the country — real communities and regions doing it right — and a primary goal of the report is to provide examples of success that other vulnerable communities and management agencies can turn to for ideas in mitigating future water resource disasters.

As became apparent in learning more about these case studies, successful flood and drought management approaches require the coordination of a multitude of diverse entities and interests, including local, state, and federal agencies, and sometimes even competing stakeholder groups. More strikingly than any other, the history of the Chehalis River Basin teaches us about the critical importance of equitable and thoughtful process engaging these diverse entities and stakeholders in designing a comprehensive and effective mitigation strategy.

The Chehalis River Basin (Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012)

The Chehalis River Basin (Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012)

The Chehalis River Basin is an area spanning three counties, seven cities, and two federally-recognized tribal reservations in southwestern Washington State. In December 2007, the upper half of the Chehalis River flooded to a record high, shutting down portions of I-5, devastating homes, farms, and businesses, and creating $938 million in economic damages. Fourteen months later, in January 2009, it happened again: the second largest flood event on record occurred along the mainstem.

It’s not that this kind of severe flooding caught the region off guard; flooding occurs frequently in the Chehalis. In fact, since 1945, more than 800 feasibility studies exploring different structural flood mitigation approaches were conducted to address frequent flood events in the basin. Due to strong political differences and a lack of consensus on what mitigation measures to pursue, however, Chehalis-area leaders have been left for the past 80 years without a comprehensive strategy for mitigating outcomes like those suffered in the 2007 flood. Central to the decades-long debate was whether or not to install large water-retaining infrastructure, which could decimate  the basin’s salmon stocks — of great cultural and economic importance to the region’s tribes and recreational fishing industry.

Incited by these consecutive flood events to ensure concrete actions towards address the region’s vulnerability, state officials contracted the William D. Ruckelshaus Center (a collaborative policy and dispute resolution group,  jointly run by Washington State University and the University of Washington) to lead an independent review of flood mitigation alternatives. The Center facilitated conversations over the course of nine months between technical experts and basin leaders — including representatives from local cities, counties, agricultural industry, and tribes.  The result has been a broad consensus amongst these historically opposed stakeholders on the effects of flooding, the potential for various project alternatives  — not just a large dam — to reduce flood damage, and the necessity of pursuing a basin-wide approach.  A small work group, charged with recommending mitigation alternatives, has agreed that enhancement of aquatic species, particularly salmon runs, needs to be equal to flood damage reduction in the flood mitigation framework. Their recommendations include a suite of large-scale projects AND ecological enhancements through restoration and land use management in the floodplain.

Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012

Chehalis Basin Flood Hazard Mitigation Alternatives Report, 2012

While the process of evaluating the costs, benefits, and feasibility of mitigation alternatives is still underway, there is arguably more momentum then ever in getting Chehalis River Basin flood mitigation projects funded and rolled out. It is clear that integration of a third-party facilitator, establishing broad support for management decisions and identifying a shared vision for the basin across historic opponents,  was central in this shifting of gears. Other regions rife with conflict and political stalling over water management options have much to learn from this case history, and could avoid potential the economic and psychological damages of flood (and other water resource challenges) by turning to facilitated collaborative decision-making processes.

Check out the Chehalis River Basin case study and the full AWRA report, “Case Studies in Proactive Flood and Drought Management,” released August 2013, and the December 2012 William D. Ruckelshaus Center report on flood mitigation alternatives in the Chehalis.