Opening  The  Floodgates
© The Register-Guard - Used with permission

Gerry Esser regarded the Mohawk as a "nice, quiet stream" - the perfect neighbor - when she bought her home Marcola four years ago.

After three year's of rural bliss, Esser's opinion about her neighbor changed one day last February when rain began falling in torrents, and chinook winds melted snow in the surrounding high country.

Within a matter of hours, the peaceful river turned Into a powerful monster, muscling over its banks, into her back yard and into her home.

Esser waited until the last moment to flee. The roiling, muddy waters slammed her Ford Bronco against a fence, pinning her inside. She managed to escape, returning the next day to find her house filled with thick, black silt, appliances ruined, walls buckled and furniture soaked.

The house was a total loss. Yet Esser believing the flood was a fluke, rebuilt on the same site. Then along came the November storm and then another. The Mohawk again sprang out of its banks like a jack-in-the-box.

This time Esser was lucky - only a half- inch of water seeped into her house. But the flood wiped out an entire summer's worth of careful landscaping - and Esser's hopes that flooding won't be an ongoing threat.

Now her front door is surrounded by a neat ring of sandbags. And her opinion of the river has changed forever.

"I keep a close eye - a very close eye - on that river now," she says. "I'm amazed now at how quickly it can change and how vicious it can be."

Across the broad - and thoroughly drenched - Willamette Valley, thousands of Oregonians now share Esser's sense of awe and uneasiness about the deadly and destructive power of that molecular compound of hydrogen and oxygen known as water.

"It just keeps raining and raining and raining and raining - and raining," remarked one U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official last week at the rapidly filling Lookout Point Dam near Lowell. "You keep asking yourself, when will it ever stop - and what will happen if it doesn't?"

Some experts believe we're about to find out.

They say the Northwest appears to he entering a wet cycle that promises to keep the Willamette Valley's rivers, streams, creeks and canals swollen with water and its soils soaked for perhaps 20 winters. They say the corps' system of 13 dams, while effective for decades in preventing major floods in the Willamette, McKenzie and Santiam river basins, was designed more than 60 years ago when the area had many fewer people to protect.

They say local governments, lulled perhaps by a false sense of security provided by the dams and a relatively dry weather cycle that began in the mid-197Os, have allowed rapid development on low-lying land vulnerable to flooding or in steep forested areas susceptible to mud slides.

And they say Oregonians, often out of environmental ignorance in the past, have filled in wetlands that once provided natural flood control and have stripped vast expanses of rural vegetation and forests that prevented erosion and retarded runoff.

"You know that old Chinese curse that says, 'May you live in interesting times'? Well, I think we're heading into some interesting times here," says John Baldwin, a University of Oregon professor and specialist on environmental public policy.

"We're living on the edge," says Gordon Grant, a U.S. Forest Service research hydrologist in Corvallis. "Right now, the ground is fully saturated, the reservoirs are nearing capacity, we've got a big snowpack and we're entering this 2O-year wet cycle. We're staring down the barrel of a gun."

For many Oregonians, there is a sense that something in our lives has shifted, that we are once again vulnerable to devastating natural forces we presumed had been managed into submission.

"We've forgotten that molecules are stupid, that the compound water doesn't adhere to the wishes of mayors or city councils or legislatures or federal agencies - water simply obeys gravity," Baldwin says.

Our complacency is relatively short-lived. There was a time before the dams and before theories of "flood-zone management" that people understood and feared the power of the rivers that ran through their land.

Native Americans certainly had an intimate understanding of rivers and flooding. Historical accounts recall that tribes in what is now California referred to their northern counterparts as "webfoots" and the land now known as Oregon as one of "clouds and rain."

Early settlers of Eugene also understood, derisively referring to their frequently flooded city as "Skinner's Mudhole." And people who lived here before construction of the dams began in the 1940s recall that Glenwood and portions of Eugene and Springfield disappeared under several feet of water almost every winter.

"Floods were something we just took for granted - something we prepared for," says longtime Glenwood resident Steve Moe, who remembers people commuting to work in rowboats and people building homes with second-floor entrances.

"My family used to build a fire in the fireplace in a washtub - and I remember the tub floating out into the living room during a flood," Moe recalls.

Increased awareness of the dangers of flooding is bringing unwelcome anxiety into our lives. But experts on flood control hope the television footage and newspaper photos of turbulent waters and crashing mud slides will produce public support for steps they say are necessary to reduce the threat of flooding.

While few people believe it's feasible or even environmentally desirable to build new dams, many agree that much can be accomplished by revamping and strictly enforcing land use policies limiting development in flood zones, by restricting clear-cutting of forests on steep slopes, by restoring wetland areas and by taking other steps.

"We need long-term changes in policies over the next 40 years," Baldwin says. "We have to realize that we're looking at problems that building one dam on a river won't change. We need to change the whole way we do business."