While locals wait to learn what will become of Riffe Lake in the face of a proposed extended drawdown, the gears of bureaucracy grind away.
During a recent meeting in Morton between community leaders and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Mossyrock Mayor Tom Meade voiced his growing frustration with the relationship between Tacoma Power and East Lewis County communities.
He said that ever since the utility company set its sights on the Cowlitz River Valley for electricity-generating dams six decades ago, there has been a contentious relationship fraught with mistrust between the local and outside interests.
Meade noted Tacoma Power’s evolving plan to reduce the level of Riffe Lake by at least 30 feet each summer for the foreseeable future as the most recent issue to arise between locals and the dam managers.
Meade said the new concerns are simply a continuation of long-running loggerheads in regard to fish management and angling opportunities, employment and economy concerns, recreation and Tacoma Power’s follow through, or lack thereof, on fulfilling prior commitments that date back to the origins of the dams.
Mostly, Meade said, Lewis County residents feel that there is a longstanding communication problem between the utility company and local interests. According to Meade, Tacoma Power has a lengthy history of placating or blatantly disregarding the concerns of local residents and governments.
“I’m not really sure why that is other than they are big and we’re not,” Meade told Herrera Beutler.
In February, Tacoma Power announced its intention to lower the historic summer level of Riffe Lake in response to updated earthquake concerns that indicated the spillway piers on the upriver side of Mossyrock Dam might be vulnerable to failure in the event of a large earthquake in the relative vicinity of the dam.
That type of failure would result in catastrophic downriver flooding if the lake were at full capacity. Tacoma Power’s risk reduction plan has been submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval, but so far no timetable has been provided for the project by either entity.
Tacoma Power plans to reinforce the piers while the water level is kept low. Tacoma Power Generation Manager Pat McCarty has said that the project is likely to stretch into the next decade. He referred to the impending low water levels at Riffe Lake as the “new normal.”
Herrera Beutler said that she is familiar with Tacoma Power’s proposal and is aware of the concerns held by local residents who fear the impact the potential loss of recreational tourism will have on fragile East Lewis County economies.
That reduced summer water level will dramatically alter the summer landscape at Riffe Lake. For instance, the swimming area at Mossyrock Park will no longer be underwater, and the boat launch at the park will no longer be adequate to launch large boats that require trailers.
Additionally, the fishing bridge and southern boat launch at Taidnapam Park will both be put out of commission due to the lower lake level, and there are concerns about boater safety due to exposed stumps and other partially submerged obstacles.
Campground operators and local businesses are concerned that fewer people will visit the lake during the typically busy summer months due to the “new normal”.
County officials have also been keeping an eye on the developing scenario at Riffe Lake. At the meeting in Morton, County Commissioner Edna Fund noted that Tacoma Power seems to be committed to an open dialogue with interested and affected parties.
“We met with them (Tacoma Power) the other day and they said they’ve even met with the ‘angry anglers,’” said Fund.
Tacoma Power has previously stated its intention to relocate the Mossyrock Park swimming area in order to accommodate the new summer water level and to upgrade the Mossyrock Park boat launch so that, like the northern Taidnapam boat launch, it will float in order to adjust to fluctuating water levels.
Since it announced its intention to reduce the summer water level at Riffe Lake, Tacoma Power has maintained that those recreation projects are subject to a complicated permitting process due to their proximity to a waterway as well as a power-generating dam.
However, when local concerns were broached during last week’s meeting with Herrera Beutler, it appeared that a rough timeline may have finally emerged.
Shari Hildreth, district director for Herrera Beutler’s office, noted that roughly five weeks ago Tacoma Power said it would likely have at least some of the recreation upgrades at Riffe Lake completed by this summer. Specifically, Hildreth said, Tacoma Power had stated its intent to have the Mossyrock Park swimming area adjusted to the new water level before summer’s end, with the nearby boat launch likely to be completed in time for summer 2018.
An attempt to confirm those plans with Tacoma Power, though, has cast considerable doubt over the likelihood of those best-case scenarios. Tacoma Power community relations specialist Monika Sundbaum said there is still no official timeline and the new swimming area will likely not be completed until at least this fall.
“While we would certainly like to get the swimming area done this summer, we cannot promise that because it depends on when we receive all of the necessary permits. We have submitted applications for the Army Corps of Engineers permit and State Hydraulic Project Approval permit and initiated the State Environmental Policy Act process,” wrote Sundbaum in an email to The Chronicle. “Once SEPA is complete, our next step is to apply for a shoreline permit (from Lewis County). Based on current permit schedule estimates, construction could potentially begin as early as this fall.”
Sundbam noted that there is considerably more hope that the upgraded boat launch could be ready for next year’s summer recreation window.
“We are in the process of developing design drawings for permanent improvements to the Mossyrock Park boat launch and plan to have it updated by summer 2018 (again, pending the permitting process),” wrote Sundbaum. “Construction plans include extending the ramp and replacing the dock to accommodate lower lake elevations.
“Construction for permanent improvements to the boat launch would need to happen this winter when the water is at its lowest level. In the meantime, we are also investigating if we can make any potential temporary improvements.”