Saturday, January 10, 2004
As the rumbling of Coos County Road Department dump trucks carrying yards of gravel boomed and reverberated through the Blossom Gulch valley, Liz McGraw smiled.
Sitting by a window in her Anderson Avenue home, McGraw heard freedom in those sounds.
"I haven't been able to get out of here in months," she said, as the trucks dumped 40 yards of gravel onto a constantly flooded road; "since before Thanksgiving."
McGraw suffers from multiple sclerosis and relies on an electric wheelchair to take her to town. With a modern six-wheel model with two large-treaded tires, she can travel over sand, gravel and asphalt roads. What she can't do is wade through a foot or more of standing water.
Yet for McGraw and the approximately 40 other residents who live in the valley at the dead end of Anderson Avenue, wading knee-deep through water has been the reality for years.
This week, McGraw's patience ran dry.
"After two years of living here, I just got tired of it," she said.
"When you have a disability, you don't want to feel like you're cut off," she added.
The Blossom Gulch valley neighbors say they've been stuck between a county that officials say is hamstrung by environmental regulations and state agencies that are mandated to protect threatened species.
Frustrated with the politics of repairing the road, McGraw this week began making phone calls. She contacted the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and several agencies that represent the disabled. She was told it would be difficult to find funding to fix the problem.
Feeling little hope, she called Coos County Commissioner Gordon Ross on Thursday and finally got some results. Hours after McGraw complained, Ross returned her phone call and the Road Department arrived to make a temporary gravel bridge over the flooded road.
"We typically wouldn't do this," said Foreman Don Beebe as the workers began dumping gravel. "Mostly, there's a health concern. We don't ignore those kinds of requests."
There are 18 households in the Blossom Gulch valley, only a short distance from the Coos Bay city limits. Groups of residents stood in the rain and drizzle this week, watching in gleeful surprise as the county began to bridge the flooded road with gravel.
Residents have complained of the problem for years. It doesn't take a major rain for flooding to occur. The overflow of Blossom Gulch is an annual event that begins in November and lasts through the winter.
While thankful and happy that the Road Department has provided the temporary fix, residents like M.J. Koreiva said finding a solution has been like wandering a labyrinth created by government agencies.
Coos County officials say the county is stymied by regulations that prevent them from working on the ditch because of threatened salmon habitat. The ODFW says the road is the county's problem.
The neighbors, meanwhile, keep seeing the water rise.
"We've had salmon cross the road," said longtime resident David Gray.
Regulations protecting those threatened coho salmon have prevented the Road Department from doing what it used to do, Beebe said.
"Back in the old days, before all the agencies took over, we used to ditch this thing all down," said Beebe. "Since that time, there's restrictions on when we can ditch."
ODFW said the road belongs to the county and flooding on top of the road is the county's problem to repair.
"It's a county road," said Assistant District Fish Biologist Alan Ritchey. "We've been out there with the county as well as the National Marine Fisheries Service. If anyone is going to do anything, it's going to be the county."
The county has tried to fix the problem.
A year ago, the Road Department installed a 36-inch culvert to help the water flow. ODFW supported the county's petition to replace the plugged culvert and attached a set of conditions, such as ensuring that the excavation did not leave a barrier to fish passage. Also, the activities were limited from July 1 to Sept. 15 and ODFW wanted to ensure the culvert width remained at least as wide as the channel.
It should have been a good fix, but McGraw said problems worsened after the work. A telephone line was exposed during the job and now, constantly underwater, has shorted out. Some residents have no dial tones. Others say they receive phone calls intended for nearby neighbors.
Meanwhile, the silt has replugged the culvert and Beebe said it has only about 18 inches of clearance.
Since the road is below the flood plane, Beebe and Ritchey said the only real fix will be raising the road permanently.
"We're going to get this every winter unless we keep raising the road," Beebe said.
While the option of raising the road may be cost prohibitive for the county, so far it's been the residents' finances that have suffered. Waterlogged transmissions, failing brakes and shorted-out starters have been common. McGraw's caretaker, who used to come to her home three times a week, stopped after the water damaged her starter.
The residents, though, have no other way to reach their homes except Anderson Avenue through the water.
"This is a situation where this is the only way in and out," Koreiva said.
Blossom Gulch valley is not unique in the county. In the Bay Area, residents in Englewood also report tide gate failures that cause flooding. Catching Slough often floods homes, although the county has been attempting to solve problems there with fish-friendly tide gates.
Back in the Blossom Gulch valley, residents have been patient and have tried to be understanding of the politics.
"We like our creek. We like our trees. We like our valley, but we just don't like (the water) on the floorboard of our cars," Koreiva said.
Reflecting on the impact of her activism, McGraw said she was surprised she was able to make a difference.
"I'm so excited," she said. "I'm just so thrilled the government people
Copyright © 2004, Southwestern Oregon Publishing Company and Associated Press