Leaders in D.C. pushing for Howard Hanson Dam repair money



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Posted on May 6, 2010 at 6:14 PM

AUBURN, Wash. - Members of Washington's congressional delegation, Gov. Chris Gregoire and state political and business leaders met in Washington, D.C. Thursday to keep the pressure on the government to find hundreds of millions of dollars to permanently fix the damaged Howard Hanson Dam on the upper Green River.

Howard Hanson is a flood control dam built to end generations of floods that swamped the valley's farms and towns. But now, the Green River Valley is dominated by suburbs and businesses. At risk are homes and people's jobs in those businesses. Billions of dollars are at stake.

Two winters ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which operates and maintains the earthen dam, found some troubling depressions along the top of what's referred to as the abutment. The abutment is the ground the dam locks into on its north side. The depressions were found after water behind the dam was taken to record levels after weeks of pounding rains.

Months of investigation by engineers found that the depressions were not a big deal, but they also found more seepage than usual through the abutment, which led to millions being spent to pump in many tons of grout to fill any voids and spaces that were allowing excessive amounts of water to get through.

It all means the Corps couldn't hold back as much water, fearing that a sudden outburst of water would take out the dam entirely and raise the dangers downstream to deadly levels. Last year's El Nino winter was very kind to the Northwest and there was no flooding. But will big rains come next year or the year after that?

The Corps is developing both a short-term repair and permanent fix to the reservoir, but needs Congress to approve millions of dollars.

When Mal Knutson steps into his backyard, which faces the Green River, the thing he can't escape is the black plastic cover that protects a wall of big sandbags separating a potentially out of control river from his home.

All up and down the Green River Valley, from Auburn to Kent to Tukwila and large swaths of unincorporated King County, the push is on to get a permanent fix for the Howard Hanson Dam, which lies deep in the cascades and has kept the valley from flooding since the early 1960s when it was completed. 

"I'm scared," says Knutson. "I'm worried."

But he says he has mixed feelings about the wall that sits behind his house. While he and his neighbors worry that it will be at least two to three years or longer before the dam will be back to its original strength, he says at times he'd wish the wall would be gone so he could enjoy the river again. After all, he's lived here for 35 years.