Thursday, July 29, 2010

Deadly Rivers: Trouble in King County

If the public awakened one morning to a headline announcing that King County had a new priority/policy, establishing river-bank landscaping as the prime task for the County Dept of Transportation crews…setting aside road safety/maintenance and other mundane tasks to get on with the more important installation of logs and stumps (so-called Large Woody Debris, or LWD) and exotic flora in and along our streams and ditches…little doubt what the typical public reaction would be.

If sidebar articles noted the death of members of the public here and there…trapped in some of these artificial installations or natural logjams that have been protected by the same policy…or accidents and deaths along rivers and ditches for want of necessary guardrails…again a predictable public response…someone would have to explain.

The incredulous reader would be shocked to consider…for instance…the tragic loss of the two youngsters whose vehicle tumbled into the Green River last week…in the context of so reckless a County policy…or maybe the plight of the Maple Valley woman who lay helpless and trapped in her vehicle in a ditch out there last year…long days before she was finally rescued…would come to mind. And again…all the grief for want of a guardrail…or any of the several other occurrences of the sort.

If the story went on to detail approval by the County Executive and the County Council of this policy…and the Sheriff was found looking away…there would be hell to pay. Such recklessness would seem unthinkable!

Unthinkable that these sworn public servants would approve this sort of madness? Unthinkable…indeed! But the de facto reality is that our worthy public servants have left certain County employees to operate in a vacuum of mismanagement and inattention …and that has as certainly created tragedy and danger to the public…as if they had directly approved it to begin with!

Money is being poured into failed and failing projects as described above, by one section of the County Department of Natural Resources, with no effective oversight has festooned even the seasonal puddles and dry ditches with what is at best to be called landscaping. Large logs and boulders placed in some areas where only seasonal waters accumulate. The cost of all this so troublesome in a County where so many critical budget items are falling to the axe is just remarkable.

Probably no more tragic and ironic an example of this is that site on the Green River Road where those two little lives were lost. There are long gaps in what little guardrail there is along that dangerous path. Where there is guardrail up the road a ways, it bears the scars of other more fortunate travelers who have struck it with their vehicles, preventing them from a similar fate…a tumble into the river. There is no doubt these little ones would have been saved if all that road were properly guarded!

And unnoticed by most who visited the site to pay respects, and assist where they could, is a nearby little rivulet called Olsen Creek. It empties into the river about 300 feet from the accident scene. This creek is about four feet wide and was running high the day in question, yet the water was not within 2 to 3 feet of certain large logs placed parallel to the flow along with several large boulders.

At a cost of tens of thousands of dollars at this site alone, King County had “landscaped” this freshet to “mitigate” some construction elsewhere…another site that could not possibly have benefited from this waste. Neighbors are clear that this creek supports a run of salmon, but it has never been burdened with or in apparent need of, the sort of “mitigation” as seen now. And the fish did just fine. Point of fact, the water will never reach these logs above as placed…no benefit to nature will ever accrue.

The cost however is now clear to all the brokenhearted who grieve the loss of children. How many feet of guardrail could have been installed with those wasted thousands of public dollars? And how many other wistful wasteful projects are carried out in the vacuum permitted by County leadership. The answer is in the hundreds. And at the very least they are costly…many are very dangerous as well.

Two other examples are worthy of inclusion…they really drive home the point of all this:

About four miles upstream from Renton a new “Elliott Bridge” across the Cedar River was completed just a few years back. Total project cost was in the area of eleven million dollars. A critical examination of the costs there reveals roughly two million in what is palpably waste. A costly ($165,000) box culvert was installed there on an adjoining creek. This culvert exceeds the potential maximum flow level of the creek by 1200 percent according to one County engineer who asked not to be named. This needless expense went to replace a perfectly functional 5-foot culvert at the site!

Landscaping alone on this project exceeded half a million dollars. Exotic plantings alone exceed $500,000! Among other plantings…$66,000 dollars for something called the “Nootka Rose”…which just happens to be a favored source of browse for the local deer herd! Planting an attraction for deer in what is an increasingly high traffic intersection again speaks volumes about priority here! This creek is also “landscaped” high on the bank with roughly 20 large logs which will also never see the water. These “enhance the salmon habitat”…we are told…at $1500 to $3000 apiece!

The most recent example of this misguided environmental zeal is found a couple miles upstream on the Cedar…if you are quick to observe that is…they may not survive another storm. Along a stretch of the river that is being “naturalized” by DNR, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to place LWD on the shoreline. These logs with. root-wads still attached, were chained together and marginally anchored to large rocks. Their purpose is cited somewhere in the unreviewed annals of this particular project.

That these setups are inherently dangerous is absolutely not in question. Even the DNR employees who place them have admitted as much. Similar installations have caused additional debris to collect in rivers, causing near-drownings and property damage. But still they are promoted and placed for some questionable purpose or other. Never mind the safety of the public. The children.

And more irony??? Just last week…as reported by KING-5 TV…these “carefully engineered” and guaranteed safe installations began to “migrate”…that is loosen up and float away…in the first modest storm of the season. As neighbor Ron Burrus noted in the KING-5 report, at the very least this floating… publicly funded…debris represents a huge risk to the infrastructure down stream…especially the new multimillion dollar Elliott Bridge! Never mind the safety of the public! Next in line…the golf course.

The final scene of this little drama…KING 5 found the D.O.T. crews and the DNR engineer frantically trying to secure this mess with 3” chain to nearby trees…large unstable cottonwoods. What do you suppose will happen when a really big storm rolls through??? Most likely the whole mess, including the “newly recruited” cottonwoods on the bank will begin another voluntary journey…perhaps as far as the bridges in the City of Renton!

I have to say a thoughtful word here about the folks at DNR who plan and execute these projects. I am acquainted with many of them and they are decent folks…but their understanding of public safety issues is wanting. They have…at the very least a “conflict of interest”…in their situation…experimenting with the notion that somehow urban streams can be returned to their “natural state” as in 100 years or so ago.

This misbegotten notion could one day have them attempting to re-direct the Cedar into its old path…which just happened to be the heart of modern-day Renton…City Hall square in the path. Never mind the old “Black River” which shared a similar path…right through what is now the Renton Airport!

And to this point… just a year ago last July…as concern from public safety and river recreation groups reached a great level…the King County Council at last took what some hoped would be a level-headed look at this problem. Council members Reagan Dunn and Larry Philips penned a letter to County Exec Ron Sims requesting some accountability for public safety concerns.

With more “fanfare than fat”…an inquiry of sorts was conducted and predictably closed with assurances that all was well…and after all didn’t we all want the Salmon to recover??? This last point exposes the most common excuse used to shield these dangers from real scrutiny.

Here is the hard point of fact! The real science around “salmon recovery” is at best neutral when considering these LWD exercises! Media and “should be responsible” County government folks swallow “hook-line-and-sinker” the lame arguments that this danger is mandated by some Federal environmental plan or other. It would do the salmon (and Steelhead) a hell of a lot more good to just shoot…that’s right shoot…the burgeoning populations of Sea Lions that destroy whole or partial fish-runs when they gang up at dams and the Ballard Locks.

And finally the question for zealots who decry these questions. How many fish would you trade one of your kids for???


To illustrate the degree to which County Govt. itself is divided consider this: in these recent years of “back to nature” zealotry even public safety authorities have been thwarted in trying to maintain a public safety balance in these projects. You will not find a cop or firefighter who has anything positive to say about LWD. Likewise they deplore having to let natural debris or other dangerous conditions accumulate around our rivers, as DNR has argued they should.

In June 2006, the King County Marine safety Unit responded to a whole bevy of complaints about youngsters injured swinging from ropes (attached to trees along the bank) at the famous “Blue Hole” on the Snoqualmie River near North Bend. After several injuries and near death situations the Marine Safety Unit took matters in hand and cut down the two offending trees! End of problem! The neighbors cheered them on.

Reaction from elsewhere in County Govt??? A “Code Enforcement” officer from the DDES/DNR cited the cops for “logging and clearing in a sensitive area…without a permit!!!” This citation was recorded in DDES file # E05G0183…which file has mysteriously disappeared from the records at the Sheriff’s Office according to the staff there. Whatever the fate of the file and the cops in question……this sort of event was hardly a happy token between the two agencies. How does that bode for public safety. Probably just coincidence that this “file” disappeared the same month a local paper (P.I., July 2005) began an expose’ on such doings at the sheriff’s office!


The responsible parties…the Sheriff…the County Council…the County Executive…should promptly review this program and place public safety in the forefront of all such efforts. A real hearing should be held to put the mater in focus…and the cops and firefighters should find the voices at last and weigh in publicly! If any of these good people see any task of Government as more important than public safety…especially that of children…they should be put out to seek other employment. The cynical excuse that some Federal, State or Local “environmental fiat” takes precedence over public safety should be seen for what it is worth…a violation of the first and most sacred purpose of Government…and promptly discarded! Let’s get on with it before other innocents are sacrificed! As I asked above…how many fish would you trade a child for???

Finally! This madness about fish infects the State as well!! Deaths are mounting all over the State as rivers are reduced to death traps by ardent but misguided “environmentalist bureaucrats! Take a look at the potentially deadly logjam in the middle of downtown Issaquah…courtesy of someone at the state Dept of Fish and Game. Questions have got to be asked about the safety of these “projects”…the public deserves some answers!

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