Monday, April 16, 2012

A Stream With No Name

In early March 2007 I received a call from a distressed property/home owner below a nearly completed timber harvest on the west side of Sumas Mountain. He told me he had water flowing across his property where there never had been water previously. Given that Sumas Mountain is not a long drive, I agreed without much enthusiasm to head out and take a look.

When I arrived I found water coursing down the slope of his property clearly on a route where water had not previously flowed. I headed up slope to find the source. This was not rocket science. Essentially the construction of the logging road switching back up the mountain side had captured a stream in the road side ditch and rerouted it out of its usual flow path into a different watershed - a watershed that had not previously had any surface water flow.  

Stream capture at capture point. Stream is intercepted by ditch.

I should note that the stream had already been diverted out of its usual channel approximately 500 feet up the slope from this location. Hence the reason for the lack of a defined channel in the picture. The reroute above this location led to a debris flow approximately one week after the above picture was taken. Alas no pictures of the debris flow as when I visited post debris flow I had failed to have charged my camera. A further note on this rerouted stream is that its flow is very flashy. It would flow very hard during heavy rain and then nearly go dry within a few days. This is due to the fact that the much of the harvest area is underlain by thin soils over low permeable bedrock. A factor that was not taken into account perhaps as much as it should have been. 

Once out of its watershed, the stream eventually flowed into a culvert and was discharged down slope below the road and then was picked up again by the road in a lower switchback ultimately being directed onto the distressed property owner's land.

View up the ditch just above the culvert that shunted the stream down slope again hundreds of feet off its original course and into an entirely different drainage area.

I took this picture looking straight up the slope above the culvert.
Note there is no indication of flowing water above the road

Discharge down the slope. From zero flow to needing a 2-foot culvert

Water flowing across forested slope of the property. Note the stream flowing around mature trees. (I had to brighten the photo as the forest canopy made the lighting difficult)

The above little tour took place in early March 2007. When the property owner asked me what I thought would happen on the slope pictured above, I predicted that the stream would cut a 10 to 20 foot deep ravine through his property unless the stream was put back where it belonged as the soil underlying the slope consisted of unconsolidated glacial sediments. Indeed, two years after this visit, the slope above had a ravine approximately 13 feet deep and several mature trees had fallen over. 

This particular forest practice had other drainage problems as well. A few weeks later these problems caused two debris flows. Neither were tragic as one debris flow stopped before reaching a home site, and the other became jammed within an inner gorge of a canyon leaving a debris dam for some future event to unravel. A third debris flow swept down the mountain side in January 2009 missing a home by approximately 100 feet and missing another by 200 feet before it buried a stream/wetland enhancement project. All three of these debris flows were the result of forest road drainage or diversion problems.

One would think that once the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was notified and the timber company became aware of this diverted creek, the problem would be readily resolved. Simply put the creek back where it belongs. The issue of the stream diversion has never been resolved. The diverted stream pictured above remains diverted into an area it never previously flowed. The DNR, the agency charged with administrating and enforcing the Forest Practice Act sent at least three staff to visit. In a letter issued by the DNR to the impacted property owner the DNR stated, "The DNR forest practices forester has recently inspected the site and all forest road drainages are being maintained in compliance with forest practice standards. That being said, the drainage situation on Mr. XXXXX's property is still unresolved. The department does not see any public resource or safety issue with the current situation. The drainage issue onto Mr. XXXX's property is a civil issue and should be resolved between landowners, not a government agency." 

The problem regarding this assessment of public safety issue was, as far as I known, no agency investigation of just where this new stream of water go beyond Mr. XXXXX's property and just what might it do. In January 2009 this unnamed creek made its presence known to down slope property owners. The rerouted creek took out a driveway and closed the only road to three homes causing thousands of dollars of damage with homeowners completing unexpected culvert replacements. There was a safety issue and there still is. 

The DNR letter included another line: "Any plan that is agreed on (between Mr. XXXXX and the timber company) should be reviewed by the DNR to insure that changes to the existing drainage on the forest roads comply with forest practices rules and provide adequate protection to public resources and safety."

Unfortunately this civil matter took two and a half years to resolve as the timber company argued that the stream had always been located on the property. No, I am not kidding. It took numerous reports by consultants, carefully presented LiDAR images of the drainage patterns, sitting through depositions at attorney offices, watching the timber company geologists spending hours trying to find evidence that there had been a stream previously on Mr. XXXX's property and coming within two days of a U.S. Federal District Court trial before an agreement was reached and the timber company and the damaged property owner came to terms. That is right, Mr. XXXXX went to federal court to have the problem addressed. I am not privy to the terms of the settlement.

And all over a stream that was so clearly diverted and for some reason remained so. It was an interesting exercise that I still do not understand. Hope I never will. 

If there were any light moments in this dark process it was that throughout the various reports by others and in depositions others used names for this stream as well as a couple of other stream routes associated with various properties in the vicinity. I refused to adopt the names that were being used, instead I delighted in calling the stream with no name Diverted Stream.

1 comment:

Dan McShane said...

Via Silver Fox:

I was just commenting that BLM, USFS, and state EPAs would never let a mining/exploration company get away with something like this when Google signed me out and required verifications of my identity (!).

The questions of watersheds, catchment basins for stormwater, and related issues are taken quite seriously down here -- whether the land in question (mines) are private or patented and the downstream (or over the hill) lands are public or private. At least in my experience.