Monday, November 30, 2015

Winter Alfalfa Irrigation and Stateline Wind Farm

Onions are perhaps the Walla Walla valley's most famous crop. However, grapes for wine have become a much larger industry and in some circles may be eclipsing onions. The valley also has large acreage in alfalfa. The ice age flood silts and wind deposited silts combined with irrigation and generally dry air are the right combination for highly productive alfalfa fields. The fact that large tracts of range land are present on the east end of the Horse Heaven Hills and in the nearby Blue Mountains helped establish large acreage in the production of feed for livestock. In the early days of Walla Walla there was good money to be made from raising meat for mines in Idaho. 

Ice on a recently irrigated strip of alfalfa

The ice age flood silts will hold a lot of water and alfalfa will grow as soon as the weather begins to warm. Hence, irrigation is a year round project to build up and maintain soil moisture in this otherwise very dry area on the southern half of the valley.

A new type of "farming" can be seen on the ridge line south of the valley. The State Line Wind Farm is one of the largest in the region with wind turbines lining the crest of the Horse Heaven Hills along the Washington-Oregon boundary. These turbines catch the wind rising up and over the Horse Heaven Hills from the Columbia River gorge to the west.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Nice Weather Turn in Walla Walla

I had a project in Walla Walla prior to the Thanksgiving break. We arrived in freezing rain that switched over to light snow. The previous few days had been freezing fog. The morning was cold and dark, but I enjoyed a bit of a walk about the central part of the city.
Just a bit after finishing the site visit the fog and clouds were pushed to the south.
Weather station, grapes and the Blue Mountains

Rolling hills southeast of Walla Walla

Flocked elm on Mill Creek Road

Winter road scene with bare pavement as the clouds break apart

Friday, November 27, 2015

Mill Creek and Walla Walla

Walla Walla means place of many waters. A fit name for the multiple streams that flow off the west side of the Blue Mountains into east end of the valley.
Walla Walla valley with the Blue Mountains to the east.
The City of Walla Walla is within the northeast of the valley
The many waters concept has been enhanced by irrigation diversions. Mill Creek flows through the City of Walla Walla. Upstream of the city are diversions which route water into other streams such that there are numerous year-round creeks flowing through city. In addition to the engineered diversion works upstream of the city, the stream route through the city is very engineered.  
Mill Creek immediately east of downtown

Downstream of the above picture Mill Creek enters a tunnel and passed under portions of the downtown area. Down stream the creek remains heavily engineered and is contained with structures to reduce flooding and erosion. It may be the most engineered creek for its size of any stream in Washington State.

Early Walla Walla history made it clear that Mill Creek provided a huge benefit for the community, but the creek also periodically had very large floods that required significant flood control works.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Turkey Day Blog Tradition - Safe Travels

A Turkey Day blog tradition. I had field travels today with safe roads mostly with only a bit of freezing rain.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Alluvial Fans and a Disappearing Creeks

Last week I headed out to check a few creeks that I have and am doing work on. A decade ago I assessed and mapped debris flow hazards associated with these creek. Debris flows are a major hazard on alluvial fans. A landslide or blockage in the creek can send a fluid mass of debris (and in western Washington lots of logs) down onto the upper part of the alluvial fan.

The hazards associated with alluvial fans are not limited to debris flows. Post debris flow streams on the fan can be very erosive. If the debris flow reroutes the stream, rapid down cutting may take place depending on the gradient of the new stream route. Erosion from the down cutting can then be deposited further down the fan causing flooding or stream movement at a new location. 

The purpose of my venture in the heavy rain event was to see how the streams on the fans in question were behaving during a large storm event as two of the creeks were flowing on new routes and one was flowing across an area where lots of previous deposition had taken place from storm events 5 and 7 years ago.

What follows is observations on one of the creeks. 

Old stream channel

The old channel no longer has any water flowing through it as the creek has been redirected. The channel shown above is one of several old abandoned channels on the fan surface. Water was flowing through this channel as recently as 2009. I had first observed this channel in 2004 when the stream was flowing here. From 2004 to 2009 the stream down cut 5 to 10 feet deep into the fan surface at this channel site.

The existing creek now follows a new channel route that angles across the alluvial fan towards another alluvial fan to the south. Above the new channel the creek can be seen to have dun cut a narrow channel that has a bottom lined with larger rocks such that the down cutting has been reduced.

Down stream the stream flows across a fairly gentle gradient such that despite the high flow the day of my site visit there did not appear to be any erosion as the flow velocity was not high.

Grasses and the soil under the grass was still in place at this location.

A bit further downstream the stream disappears. At this point the stream was flowing onto another alluvial fan with gravels from a stream located further south. Both fans have been deposited over a gravel filled ice age river valley that readily infiltrates lots of water.

Further downstream and looking upstream to the log shown above there is no water flow - at least on this wet day with local rivers at flood stage.

A few feet from where the picture above was taken is the channel and stream of the next creek to the south.

I followed this creek as well and its flow ended rapidly much like the first as it flowed onto the gravel and cobble river bars of the former ice age river plain.

Diminished stream as water rapidly infiltrates

Last bits of the stream soak into a meadow underlain by river deposits from an ice age river

Neither of these creeks are connected to another surface stream even during flood events and as such are not fish bearing and not potentially fish bearing.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Remote Exploration of Santa Clarita Landslide

Susan alerted me to a landslide in southern California that has closed a road in Santa Clarita. Santa Clarita is in the mountains north of Los Angeles. Landslides should be expected if the weather pattern associated with the El Nino event soaks into the geology of this area.

I decided to explore this slide a bit. The fun of Google earth is tracking down sites like this and getting an idea what is going on. This is particularly good with the availability of newer higher resolution aerials. In the image above from this year one can see an incipient fracture at the top of the road cut where the failure took place. Additional breaks took place almost all the way back to the upper road. This is a deep-seated failure where the ground above the cut had has moved towards the cut as a mass pushing the pavement before it.

Google earth also provides a very good before image in street view:

Google earth street view before landslide

Google earth street view of road cut at slide site

  The cut slope in the street view appears to be alternating silts and clays and maybe some fine sands consistent with lake sediments. A good recipe for landslides. The unit is the Mint Canyon Formation ( and consists of terrestrial lake sediments of mid Miocene age.

Finding the exact stretch of the landslide was greatly aided by these before and after pictures:
photos via laist.

This drone footage also gives a a very good perspective: drone via by dmitry

Putting geology hazard in perspective, Santa Clarita has a lot of hazardous ground:

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fields of Bracken

Once or twice a winter I do a site visit with the full intention of seeing a site while there is a big rain event. I took advantage of today's rain on top of the heavy rain the night before on already wet ground to assess the flow and conditions of a few creeks I am working on. The event did teach me a few things.

But a side observation was this opening in the forest.

The sharp contrast of the recently brown bracken with new green fall grass made for a nice path through the small prairie in the forest.

Old pastures in western Washington can become overtaken with bracken. Historic accounts of early farmers in the 1850s and 1860s (White, 1980) noted pastures and cultivated fields being plagued with bracken. Bracken covered old farm fields are a common feature in western Washington. Prairie lands and fields opened up within the forest land often did not turn out as hoped for by early pioneer farmers. Bracken sprouting from roots years after repeated plowing were an early recognized bane in some areas. Marginal farmland that has been given up on provides excellent bracken habitat.

Bracken was one a valued food source by area First Nations so a site like this would once have been viewed as valuable bit of farm land during a different era.


Land Use, Environment and Social Change by Richard White

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Forest Board Manual Update for Landslides

The Forest Practices Board met on Tuesday, November 10, 2015 (fpb_mtgpacket). One part of the meeting was to consider adopting an update to the Forest Board Manual Section 16 Guidelines for Evaluating Potentially Unstable Slopes and Landforms. The Manual is not a hard fast rule but the fact that it is official guidance suggests that deviating from the guidance may be challenged. Hence, timber industry wants to minimize specific language in the Manual while safety and conservation minded folks would like a stronger worded guidance to ensure forest practices that may impact potentially unstable slopes gets a thorough assessment. The conservation part of the guidance is that a significant motive of forest practice rules is to protect fish habitat. Landslide frequency and magnitude can have a harmful impact on fish habitat.  

The Board approved the new Manual Section 16. However, they indicated they wanted some areas reviewed that had been raised during public comment including comments by geologists. It is my understanding that the intent is to have DNR staff and technical experts review the issues over the next few months.

I did submit some comments regarding deep-seated landslides. One comment slightly modified to better fit this post is presented below:

Rule identified landforms (WAC 222-16-050) identifies 5 categories of unstable slopes A through E. With the exception of toe areas of deep-seated landslides (category B) and groundwater recharge to glacial deep-seated landslides (category C), deep-seated landslides will fall under the catch all category (category E).

Within Part 6 of the Manual, deep-seated landslides are only assessed in Part 6.1. Glacial deep-seated landslides are placed in another category, Part 6.2.  Part 6.2 references back to Part 6.1 so that glacial deep-seated landslides are evaluated in both Part 6.1 and Part 6.2.  

Part 6.2 should apply to all deep-seated landslides. Part 6.2 includes recommendations that should be applicable to all deep-seated landslides not just glacial deep-seated landslides. It is important that all deep-seated landslides be included in the evaluation procedures in Section 6.2.

It appears that the intent is to not include all deep-seated landslides in Section 6.2. The Board should ask if that is the intent and, if so, what is the justification of excluding deep-seated landslides from this level of review. Deep-seated non glacial landslides are very common and wide spread and are found in both non glaciated and glaciated areas throughout Washington State. Some of these landslides are potentially very dangerous and not considering the potential impacts from proposed forest practices would be a failure of the Board Manual.  

Presented below is an example of a deep-seated non glacial landslide location where a forest practice was proposed on Sumas Mountain in Whatcom County, the North Zender timber sale (#91633). This proposed timber harvest is clearly located on a deep-seated landslide per LiDAR imagery presented below as well as previous geologic mapping and expansion of the slide and further runout poses significant risk. 

The proposed Board Manual would have the landslide assessed under Part 6.1 but not under Part 6.2. The criteria and assessment of Part 6.2 would not apply to this obvious deep-seated landslide simply because it is not a glacial deep-seated landslide. There no reasonable basis that Part 6.2 should not apply to this landslide or similar deep-seated landslides.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

OLYMPEX Has Started: Tracking Early Results

OLYMPEX has started and has a nice page to track what they are finding at

The program has set up weather equipment on the more westerly part of Washington State. The image above shows precipitation in mm over the previous day. The OLYMPEX sites are in orange and thus one can get an idea on the locations being concentrated on. The idea is to measure directly rainfall from in coming storms to correlate remote sensing and precipitation models in this generally rugged terrain.

Note that there is a concentration of stations that have been set up in the Quinault watershed including one well up into the Olympic Mountains. The other concentration of stations is with the Chehalis River watershed.

From a landscape perspective and a landslide geology perspective this work is a big deal. A large storm in 2007 in northeast Oregon and southwest Washington caused very large flooding as well as over 1,500 landslides. That storm has had some significant policy implications which are still being worked out. Having done a fair bit of landslide and debris flow evaluations of that event in both Washington and Oregon the importance of just how big the storm was and how intense and where rainfall feel was a point of discussion with a fair bit of uncertainty.

The OLYMPEX project will provide some better insight on how Pacific storms interact with the mountain from on the west side of the state. Some of the early results are already illuminating.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Quinault River Migration

A few years ago the Quinault Indians filed appeal of a timber harvest application arguing that the the proposed harvest was within the channel migration zone of the Quinault River. I am not fully up on the status of that case other than I know that the initial ruling from the Forest Practices Appeals Board was favorable to the tribe's appeal versus the property owner/timber owner. The tribe, the timber company and the Department of Natural Resources, the regulatory agency that approved the forest practice, all had somewhat different takes on the CMZ and just how to interpret the forest practice law and the forest practice manual and how applicable the specific language in the manual is on the matter. 

The firs two images show that the Quinault River is migrating southward.

1994 with red line marking southern edge of active channel area

2012 image showing that the river is moving south

The Quinault Tribe has a very keen interest in salmon habitat on the Quinault River as the river passes through their reservation on the west side of the Olympic Peninsula. The width of the riparian buffer is based on the channel migration zone. The tree leave area is defined by the required buffer as measured from a where the channel is expected to migrate over time. In this case the rapid southward migration meant that more trees would be left than than the logging outfit applied to harvest. It is easy to see that an unfavorable channel migration would reduce the expected value of a tree stand. And in reverse how harvesting of trees (or development) might mean that the river would be left with no large wood buffer after migrating to a new channel. The role of the road was a key part of the appeal and how the Board Manual treats roads.

A little overview of the Quinault watershed steep tributary streams in the area shows why the river might be so prone to migrate. Lots of landslides putting plugs of sediment into the system.

2009 Aerial

Same location is 2013 with large landslide into tributary stream

2009 aerial

Same location in 2013

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Post Election Notes: The Green Line in Whatcom County, Coal and a Jail

Local elections are over with most of the ballots counted.

In Whatcom County coal was the big looser.

With the passage of Charter Amendment #9 which moved the County from a three district system to a five district system. How this undermines coal interests is that it prevents a minority take over scheme pushed by the local GOP. Coal interests put about $100,000 into the County Charter amendment races and they needed to win #1, #2 and #3 and defeat #9 and #10. While they did win # 1, #2 and #3, those wins are empty without also defeating #9 and #10.

Details of the amendments are presented below:

Coal also lost in that the two council members elected are not likely to be coal supporters.

But the biggest coal loss may have been in a race that has no consequence on the coal terminal permit. Gary Jensen, the current mayor of Ferndale lost his bid to be elected to the Port Commission. Jensen was the perfect Port candidate: experienced, business aligned, and labor aligned. However, he was an early and well recognized coal terminal supporter (the proposed terminal site is on private land and not a port project). That early backing from 5 years ago was toxic for him.

A tax proposal to fund a new jail also lost. This project brought forward by the County Executive and Sheriff did not have the needed buy in to get the support necessary. It is too bad as there is a need for a new jail. But the new jail solution was so bad folks that would typically be counted on to support the project did not materialize and some even opposed it (disclosure: I was one of the authors of the voter pamphlet con statement).

There will be some significant fall out from this jail vote fail. One the County put out a mailer on the jail that very likely crossed the line of legality and will be a very interesting case to watch before the Public Disclosure Commission. That mailer also enraged the County Council and this will put some significant tension between the Council and Administration. The Sheriff is pushing some unilateral decisions regarding what to do now about the jail that may be counter to the direction the County Council would want to go. Law and Justice is complex and is going to be complicated for a while in Whatcom County.        

Here is a run down of the 1, 2, 3 , 9, and 10 amendments all of which passed.

Charter Commission 1: District Only Voting

This is one of the partisan parts of the package of amendments. The Charter Commission majority are Republicans and they can do math. By going to district only voting, they can pull off minority rule for the elections of county council. District 1 under district only voting will be two Democrats as that district is overwhelming Democrat. District 2 will be 2 Republicans as it leans much towards Republicans although not so much as District 1 leans Democrat. District 3 leans Republican by a little and will likely be 2 Republicans as well at least in the near term. The results of district only voting can be seen in the Charter Commission election itself. District 1 all Democrats, District 2 all Republicans and District 3 four Republicans and one Democrat. A majority of Commission members have been fairly clear that the main purpose behind this scheme is overcoming the majority voting that has led to the Council currently being 6 Democrats (one was appointed) and one independent. The last council election saw Democrats sweep Republican candidates.

One of the problems with this proposal beyond the minority rule motivation is the County has only three districts and the way the current districts are drawn is a bit off for meeting State law on district boundaries. This was never much of a problem since council (and by the way Port and Public Utility District) were elected county-wide. But with Bellingham carved up by three districts the district lines should be redrawn to meet state rules - a difficult task with only three districts. None of that matters though if your goal is to accomplish minority rule.

There are also some real governance issues with district only elections. Council members may only concentrate on issues that matter within their district and vote swapping along the lines of "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" should be of some concern particularly with public works projects.

Charter Commission 2 and 3: Limits Council Charter Amendment Proposals

These amendment were put forward to prevent the County Council from putting forward amendments that would undo any of the charter amendments that might pass by 2/3 of the voters (#2) or involving election of council (#3) . It would require a 7-0 vote by the council to put an amendment of the Charter to the voters under those circumstances.

Council: 9 Five District Proposal

This proposal would shift the County from the current 3 districts to 5 districts and thus would address the problematic issue of the current district boundaries and with more and smaller districts might also assure broader diversity on the Council. (Full disclosure: I testified in favor of placing this measure on the ballot - although personally I would prefer to see the County go to seven districts.)

Council: 10 Super Majority Proposal

This amendment will require a super majority vote by the commission or council to put an amendment on the ballot. (Full disclosure: I emailed this amendment to the Council for consideration) This will have the effect on the commission of ending the narrow partisan approach that has plagued essentially every Charter review. It could be called the "cut the crap" amendment and perhaps would lead to discussion of governance issues versus the partisanship. The amendment proposal also calls out that the council would be required to have a super majority which is already the case, but a phrase was added that says that "no amendment shall require a higher number". This is in direct conflict with the Charter Commissions amendments #2 and #3 requiring a 7-0 vote by the council. Resolution of this conflict will either require another amendment or court determination.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Law and Justice - A local Perspective

The law and justice system in the United States is getting some much needed attention. Yes, the position of President of the United States plays a role as does Federal laws and funding schemes. How U.S. senators and congress representatives think of the issue makes a difference as well. Law and justice is a big part of governance.

Black Lives Matter, racial equity, police in New York or Ferguson or wherever the latest viral news stories are cause for conversation, but much of what is important is local. How is your local law and justice system working? Is your town a Ferguson? Local law and justice is a hard complicated system. The system can be dangerous, funding is always a challenge, the system has long lasting impacts on communities and peoples lives both good and bad, labor issues add to the challenge, and when the system breaks down the ability of any community to function becomes greatly limited.

Washington State has its share of problems with law and justice. Those problems crop up at the State and local level.

Seattle Police are and have been under Federal oversight. Turning the Seattle Police institution around is no easy task and our largest city continues to struggle.

Benton County is now facing a lawsuit associated with policies and approaches taken by the District Court judges with affirmation by the County Commissioners ( and ACLU sues Benton County and for a bit of background on Fuentes - wesa.operating-modern-day-debtors-prison). It is a very good example of how a local law and justice system can get out of balance. The ACLU's efforts are focused on the fact that impoverished offenders are being thrown in jail for failure to pay fines that they can not pay. The NPR story noted that 1 in 4 people in jail in Benton County were there for failure to pay fines.

Benton County may be further down the path of this approach to law and justice, but the same approach is common throughout Washington State. It is just one of those complex local governance issues that does not receive the level of attention needed until either a lawsuit or the community just falling apart.