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: Changing river

01-24-2005, 09:37 AM

The ravenous river

Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald
Michael Crosson describes how the Skagit River changed course last week and has swept away about 5 acres of his property. The tree line behind him used to extend alongside the river, enclosing his pasture. Below, the Skagit River undercuts the sandy embankment after changing course earlier in the week east of Concrete off Moen Road and Thunderbird Lane.
Swollen Skagit River is devouring land as it changes course
CONCRETE - Standing on his back porch Saturday afternoon wearing mud boots, a white T-shirt and a bathrobe, Paul Eldridge watched and listened to the Skagit River wash away chunks of his property.

Eldridge said he estimates his land, just three miles east of where the Baker River flows into the Skagit River, has been reduced by about 3 acres in the past few days. Some of his neighbors are in the same boat.

Eating away at its loose sandstone banks, the river has overtaken about 8 acres of pasture and forest land in the Thunderbird area around Moen Road on the north bank. And the county said there is nothing that can be done about it.

With rain likely to continue today, the river is expected to reach flood stage in Concrete late tonight and crest at about 29 feet early Monday morning.

Flood stage in Concrete is 28 feet. The river has been flowing above 20 feet since it last crested above flood stage Wednesday.

For Eldridge, the sooner the river drops to a normal level, the sooner he can stop worrying about whether it will wash away his house.

Along with chunks of his property, the river has wiped out a stand of trees that once grew on the bank.
The trees make a popping sound when the roots give way and a sharp crack when the trunks hit the water about 25 feet below, he said. When a clump of earth slides into the river, a dull thud reverberates off the trees across the river.

"The first few nights, with all the timber here, we couldn't hear it so much," Eldridge said. "With the trees gone, in the river, I can hear it louder."

With his eyes welling up and a tree sliding off the bank as he spoke, he said his land used to extend between 100 and 300 feet further to the south, and his house was 500 feet away from the bluff.

He estimated that he has lost 3 acres since Thursday.

"If that river took 100 feet in no time, what's it gonna do the next time it floods?" he asked.

Eldridge's neighbor, Michael Crosson said he has lost more land - about 5 acres - but his home is farther from the river than Eldridge's.

Crosson and his wife, Heidi, used to have a wall of trees blocking their view of the river. Now their pasture is the river's edge, and all the trees have been washed away.

"We pay taxes on 22 acres, but now we only have 17," Crosson said.

He said the river has been seriously undercutting his forest land and grazing pasture since Thursday when he assumes the river changed course.

He and his wife heard clumps of earth and trees falling into the river about once every minute when the river was at its swiftest Thursday night, Crosson said.

The river's whole force is directed at the sandstone bluffs alongside Crosson's land and below the Eldridge house on the north bank.

A logjam blocked a channel upriver, and sediment filled in another channel when the heavy rains first engorged the river Tuesday.

Now, the river has been redirected into a single channel that heads directly at their land before whipping around a bend, putting the swiftest water alongside their shore.

"When something has been coming this way for many, many years and then goes a different route, there must be something that should be done," Eldridge said.

On Friday, Crosson and Eldridge invited Tom Sheahan, director of Skagit County's Department of Emergency Management, to see the damage. Three people from the Army Corps of Engineers also looked at the erosion.

Monte Kaiser, an engineer with the Corps, said there may be something that can be done on the Eldridge property if the river comes much closer to their home.

"It's cutting with high energy, and the energy has been focused on that shore," Kaiser said.

Sheahan said there is nothing the county can do to change the river's course. The river is considered wild and scenic. Therefore, it cannot be redirected and natural logjams cannot be removed.

"The way the system works, unless there is a threat to county infrastructure, or a threat to the home, there is not a lot we can do," Sheahan said Saturday afternoon.

Sheahan said the river is likely to keep eroding its northern banks on the Eldridge and Crosson properties, but that both houses are far enough away from the river that they should not be at risk.

Further downriver, where Highway 20 runs next to the Skagit, Sheahan said there is reason for concern. The river has come between 50 and 75 feet closer to the roadway. Sheahan said it is a place he and the county's public works department will watch closely.

The county - saying there is nothing that can be done about the river's course - does not sit well with Eldridge.

"If they can protect Mount Vernon and the state highway, why can't we protect ourselves?" Eldridge asked. "I can't rock it, I can't do nothing without getting in trouble."

After the river had eaten about 75 feet of his property, he tried slowing the erosion on his own. He tied a cable about three-quarters of an inch thick around a tree and waited for it to fall in the river. He hoped the tree would stay in the river and disrupt the water's force against the bluff.

The river snapped the cable and the tree floated away. Eldridge said he stopped trying to fight the river after that.

His wife, Virgie, said she's been sick with nerves since the river started eroding their land so quickly.

"We're riverfront property now, and weren't before," Virgie Eldridge said. "We don't want to be riverfront property."

This should be interesting. Have not been able to get up river for about a week but plan on checking this out tonight.

01-24-2005, 04:02 PM
Hmmm, sorta' sounds like the main river channel is again on river right, like it was when the Chitwood drift used to exist.

I was planning on bringing my boat up there to fish Thursday and again Saturday. That might be a bit optomistic given the present river height and generally warm conditions. It will be fun to scout around and check and see what havoc has been wrought by the natural process that creates and maintains habitat.


Salmo g.

01-24-2005, 11:38 PM
At the risk of sounding uncaring, which I am not, I find it interesting that folks who buy land adjacent to the Skagit (or Sauk) river and then build houses 100'-300' back from the "high bank" are surprised that the river can change course and eat away 100' or more of river bank in a flood or sustained near flood conditions. Then they expect the rest of us who live in the county to "fix" the river so their houses don't get washed away.

The probelm I have with this is these so-called "no flood, high bank" riverfront properties on the Skagit (or Sauk) are not composed of rock bluffs. They are composed of sand, blue clay, and gravel, all of which will wash away pretty readily during a flood or near flood conditions. And the folks who buy them and insist on building houses on or near them are sitting on time bombs, since all it takes is a few floods, a change in the river channel, and the river starts to eat their "high bank" away putting their house at risk of being washed down the river as well.

Of course, it is the county's, the state's, or the fed's fault for allowing the river to be designated as a Wild and Scenic River that prevents them from "fixing the river" by dumping large rock rip-rap in the river to slow it down. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who build or buy a home in these areas who then think someone should have helped keep the river at bay. Reminds a lot of the folks in California who insist on building between an unstable sand and clay bluff and the ocean, such as the town that just recently had several houses washed away in a mud slide.

01-25-2005, 11:06 AM
Yeah FT, I sure hear you. I also feel for the people who lose their homes and just wish their initial Stupidity was a bit more Painful. :confused:

The unthinking arrogance of those who assume they can build in these unstable areas and then cry and blame the "authorities" who "allowed" them to build their houses there is truely amazing.

Right along with those who assume they can channelize, reroute, or otherwise alter a streambed if their property happens to include access to the river's shoreline.

Get over it! Property ownership comes with rights ~and~ obligations, not the least of which is responsible stewardship of the land and an appreciation for reasonable and unreasonable expectations of it.

01-25-2005, 12:26 PM
I'll be happy to take some of their riverfront property if they don't want it any more... :)

From a legal perspective, what happens when the river comes across their property now? Does that mean they technically own a portion of the river? Or at least have exclusive fishing rights to it?

01-25-2005, 01:32 PM
FT I am right with you. Just like people that build in a flood plain and complain about flooding. Well hello MCFLY! What did you think was going to happen.


01-25-2005, 02:50 PM
I would consider it a blessing to have a river wash out my bank. Of course, just being a property owner again would be cool.

Hey Kerry, I was up above Steelhead Park today. I think I had a foot of clearance from my back to the trees. Let me tell you, trying to cast my 15' with that obstacle behind you will make anyone look stupid. Two feet of vis and fast. It was fishable though. I just don't think I looked good.

01-25-2005, 03:47 PM
If you are headed out to The Forks area streams and its still daylight when you get to the Hiway 101 bridge over the Elwha take the following breif detour.
Get in the left turn lane (headeding West) and drive South on the ONP access road cross the Little River bridge and continue on until you come to the cleared field on your right hand. Out in the field you will se a beautiful new home just finished not yet occupied that has been built on Steel (pile driven) post! The house is "Now very close to the River after the recent flood. Its a novel idea but I think after you see it you will probably think it the dumbest thing you ever saw.
Maybe I'm exagerrating but a house 15' or 20' above the ground on stilts is amusing and it will be even more so when the river moves under it which I perdict will happen in the near future. Who approves these building permits? :Eyecrazy:
Might be able to fish over here tommorroww!!!!!!!!!!

01-25-2005, 05:01 PM

Drive through Hamilton and you will see mobile homes sitting on brand new 8 foot foundations to keep them from getting wet. Talk about stupid and the worst thing about it is we probably paid for it in tax dollars.

I watch the building in the flood plain of the Skagit day in and day out. Huge retail developement going on in both Mt. Vernon and Burlington. Houses being built up and down the river. I truly believe that the Oct. 2003 floods has given everyone a false sense of security. The flood that all floods will be measured by is what I heard. Bull!

No one alive today has seen what the Skagit can do in a real big flood. Some day, maybe in our life time, a big flood will hit the Skagit and then we will see some destruction. The entire valley from Sedro Wooley on will be under several feet of water. Burlington, downtown and west Mt. Vernon under 4 to 5 feet of water. I5 and Hyway 9 shutdown for weeks. Railroad washed out. All north, south commerce stopped. No power for thousands. No telephone or digital communications from Mt. Vernon northward. Lose of life. Dollar value of the damage will be incredible. Some say the Skagit has the potential to be the largest natural disaster in Washington short of a large earth quake or volcanic eruption.

Naw, that would never happen.

01-25-2005, 06:07 PM

I know the place you describe well. I can't believe some dolt in the Clallum County permitting office allowed a house to be built in that area.

There is a place over here off the South Skagit Highway were someone put a double wide in about 10 years ago and put it up on the same type of steel pilings or stilts, I suppose to keep it above flooding. But when the Skagit does have one of the huge floods it is capable of that Kerry mentioned, this guy's place is going to be under water!


It amazes me how Mount Vernon, Burlington, and Skagit County have allowed all that commercial development right next to the dike. When we get a 40' flood, they are going to be under water. And old town-site Hamilton getting rebuilt with FEMA and flood insurance money is beyond me. All they have to do is use the money to move the folks to new housing on the north side of Hwy 20. But that's right, I forgot, the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board ruled a few years ago that doing this was not allowed under the Growth Management Act because it would double the number of houses in a currently unincorporated area of the county. Don't you love the rules on this one that insure these places are going to continue to get flooded and we will continue to rebuild them because the Growth Management Hearings Board deemed it not OK to move the town out of the flood plain.

The dikes on Cocharan Island are another great use of tax dollars. All to semi-protect about 10 houses. What a bargain for the taxpayers in the county.

Truthfully, I'd like to see the county, feds, cities, and state condemn the houses in Hamilton, on Cocharan Island, and similar places, pay the property owner fair market value, tear them down, and turn it into county park land that could be leased for agricultural use. Just no buildings could be erected on it. Naw, that's too easy and logical a solution.

Brian Simonseth
01-25-2005, 06:22 PM
It amazes me how Mount Vernon, Burlington, and Skagit County have allowed all that commercial development right next to the dike. When we get a 40' flood, they are going to be under water.

Flyter you hit the nail on the head!

01-25-2005, 08:05 PM
River front property owners, instead of receiving public subsidies in the form of riprap or FEMA buyouts, should be given a copy of "The Control of Nature" by John McPhee. A General in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, when asked why they began the Mississippi River dike and levee project said they couldn't move Vicksburg. A century later, and after the big 1998 Miss. flood, the Corps knows it would have been cheaper to move Vicksburg.

Flytier, I hear ya'. It's not uncaring; it's about understanding natural and logical consequences of uninformed, under-informed, and or ignorant actions.


Salmo g.

wet fly
01-26-2005, 09:52 PM
I have read this with a special interest since I am the forth generation to live on the banks of a steelhead river. The flood plain is where the good farm land is located. Each year a half inch up to two inches of silt settles over the land. A great way to enrich the soil. This year we have had 3 medium to small floods and has left above normal deposit. The Army says aobut 657,000 tons of suspended material flows by my house each year. This is from very fine clay to sand. The stuff that settles along the river is called the silt bank. This stuff is very erodible when it is saturated with water. After each flood my routine is to walk the bounds to check out the damage. Five feet gone here 10 feet there. The option of rock is not looked on favoribly any more. I have planted well over a 1000 willow plantings this winter to help protect the bank. With all the tons of material each year there will be plenty of oportunity for erosion. This mud eventually makes its way to Puget Sound. Jerry

01-27-2005, 03:16 PM

And agriculture is what I think river bottom land like yours ought to be used for because of its richness and proneness to flooding. Commercial retail development (like that in Burlington and Mount Vernon), housing development, and manufacturing ought not be located on such land. Primarily because first and foremost it is flood plain and a flood will cause great losses of commercial, houseing, or manufacturing developement, and secondly because it is such wonderful soil for farming it ought to be reserved for such.

wet fly
01-27-2005, 04:36 PM
When a city person comes out they almost all make these two statements. 1. Its so quiet out here. 2. My dream is to have 5 acres. When they buy 5 acres in the woods along the river it great. They build a cabin and wonder how that little river can come up so high. The old homesteads are all on the high ground. I will only have a couple of acres that are green. The house and the farmstead is built here. jerry

01-27-2005, 05:30 PM
When the second settlers arrived in the Skagit Valley they asked the first settlers how far from the river they could build their houses. The first settlers told them to build above the high water mark on the trees. To bad nobody listened.

01-27-2005, 07:04 PM

But the city slickers knew that the river will never get that high and it was just a ruse by the old timers living in the valley to keep them from moving here.


One of the best quotes I've seen by one of the city folk who buy the 5 acres of paradise next to the river was in the Skagit Valley Herald a few years ago. A fellow and his wife who moved into a brand new house in the lower Samish drainage was reported to have said, "It is so quiet and peaceful out here with everything so nice a green we just couldn't resist. Besides, the river is a good 150' from the house and the builder didn't say anything about flooding. Now, my driveway is under 4' of water and I can't get to my house without a boat!" Of course he went on to say that someone needs to do something about it because they put their life's savings into the place. I

'm sure you've heard similar stuff over the years as well.

salt dog
01-27-2005, 08:33 PM
Property rights bordering a waterway are determined by several factors. Both the legal description used, and whether or not the waterway is navigable, effect the legal rights of the upland property owner, as well as their rights when a waterway changes.

The Skagit is a navigable waterway; the State owns the bottom of the river (That is why you can fish the river as long as you get to it legally, and stay within the bank). Most properties adjacent to navigable water describe that boundary as extending to the "the meander line", "bank", or "mean high water mark" of the 'x' river, or something to that effect. Its called a meander line as that is what rivers do: they meander; this year here, next year over there.

As the water course shifts gradually (accretion), so does the property boundary line (generally). One person may lose property. The Person on the other side of the river might pick up some acreage on the deal, too, as the river may deposit soil (diluvium) there.

It doesn't get simpler, either. :devil: A river course may change by "Avulsion", defined as a sudden change in a watercourse which acts as a boundary to abandon its old channel and create a new one. In that case, the boundary generally does not change with the altered course of the waterway.

Because of this rule, there are lots based upon the original Territorial surveys that are on the books, but no longer exist in fact, due to avulsion. :whoa: Kinda sorry you asked now, aren't ya. :hihi:

Why build on stilts? 'cause if you meet minimum flood requirements you can get a building permit and insurance. And if you build it they will come. Even better than stilts: if you're building a garage in the 50 year flood plain, it needs to have front and rear doors aligned with the direction the water will come through, and have doors that will allow the water through, theoretically to survive a flood. :roll: I thought they were kidding me when I first heard that one, but that's the way it is folks, amazing but true. I wonder how you park a 100' cottonwood tree in a 2 car garage. :D Think about that when you're bust'in butt to file your returns this April 15.