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October 2006 Ask the Angry Citizen

EDITORIAL

Response to Last Month’s Editorial

Last month’s editorial has been viewed by no less than 1,097 individuals by October 14th.  What follows are some of the comments received and my responses to those comments.  The comments are presented in black and my responses are in blue.

SC of Mt. Vernon writes:

You pose some interesting, pragmatic solutions.  I wonder if there may be some environmental benefit to the Corps using storage strategies (such as flood-like cleansing of the river).  Have you looked into the original stated purpose of the dams?  I'd bet they used flood control as a promise to persuade.  If they made such promises, perhaps they have some sort of obligation to act as you propose?

 When the dams were first constructed there was no provision for flood control although flood control was certainly touted by the dam owners as a major benefit to the residents of Skagit County.  Ross Dam in its early phases was not even supposed to have flood gates.  The people of Skagit County were asked to provide funding for the gates.  See Historical Dam Building And Their Impacts On Floods - PDF (1924-1969) for a more complete history of the building of the dams in Skagit County.

 The Avon overflow spillway seems like a better idea than the big ditch.  It would of course be bad news to those who live downstream, but perhaps there could be a generous insurance policy for those folks in the event it is ever used.

 I have been a long time supporter of the Avon By-Pass concept.  However, as stated in the editorial, we simply cannot afford to build a project that will meet the 3 E’s.  Also, as stated in the editorial, if we do nothing that is where the water is going to go anyway.  That is where the water has always gone and will always go.  While I have no idea if the “generous insurance policy” concept would work or not I certainly would not have any opposition to purchasing flowage easements from those people or paying for their flood insurance.  Although, not legally required in a floodway designation.  See  Historical Record of the Avon By-Pass Proposal (1921-2004) for a more complete discussion of the history of the Avon By-Pass proposals.

 How many houses/businesses would be negatively affected by an Avon overflow?

 A very legitimate question and unfortunately at this time I am not able to answer, however, since we have spent close to 4 million dollars on two hydraulic models it wouldn’t be that hard to answer once the models have ran with varying flood flows assigned to the query.  Obviously 5,000 cfs overflow for a period of 11 hours would impact fewer homeowners then 20,000 cfs for 15 hours, but it has always been my understanding that this is one of the main reasons we have spent so much money on the models, in order that we can run “what if” scenarios.  Otherwise, what good are the models?  One of the things I have advocated to the federal and local governments for several years now is to take the models, run the 1995 flood volumes, break the levees in the same place as they broke during the 1921 flood at the height of the levees in 1921, and see just how much of the floodplain would be covered with water and where would it go.  Just doing basic math calculations, I have came up with a preliminary figure that if the entire floodplain was a tabletop (and we all know it isn’t really all that flat) that the entire lower valley would have been covered with approximately 2 feet of water in 1995.  Coincidently, during the 1921 flood downtown Burlington had 2 feet of water in it.  

 The only other idea I can think of would be to build large flood levees back from the current "small" ones.  This is something they're doing in Holland to reduce flood threats (their dikes also saturate and erode, their lands continue to sink, and global warming is causing more upstream rain).  This allows more room for restoration of river wetland systems, and farmers are able to farm inside them.  Inclusion of habitat and farming might open doors for funding.  Also, this would not have to be done everywhere at once, rather in phases.

As stated in the Editorial, setback levees are a viable solution and have been recommended since at least 1897.  However, the cost associated with doing that and the opposition by the local farming community I feel would be insurmountable.  If we had the money, and the support of the farming community I would be the first to endorse such a project.

RD of Grays Harbor writes:

You seem to be not supporting the Avon By-Pass in one breadth but then endorsing it in another.

Building the “ditch” or “relief channel” or “diversion channel” or “By-Pass” is something that I have always supported.  However, as the editorial stated we simply cannot afford it.  The “emergency overflow spillway” while located in the same location as the By-Pass would not require any more construction except the modification of the levee system and modifications of north-south oriented roads.  The water would be allowed to flow out over the floodplain in a safe, natural flow path much in the same manner as it does on the Snohomish River.  As one hydraulic engineer testified to before the Joint Select Committee on Flood Damage Reduction in 1991, “The problem is not how to keep the water in the channel.  The problem is how do we get the water onto the floodplain in a safe manner.  Levee failures cause tremendous damage.  The solution to flooding is consistent heights on all levees and getting water onto the floodplain.”

DO of LaConner writes:

Do you know how much money has been spent on studies of the Skagit River?

I do not have an exact figure for you but given the fact that I have in my possession over 80 various reports and studies on the Skagit River; and in 1979 the Corps stated at public meetings that the GDM for the 1979 levee project cost 4 million dollars; and given what we were told at the last Skagit County flood control meeting that the current study is approximated to cost 9 million dollars and not be completed until sometime between 2008 and 2013; add in the cost of millions to private consulting companies; and I would have no problem stating that “studies” of the Skagit River have cost the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars over the last 109 years.  Water’s wet, it flows downhill, it seeks the path of least resistance, get the hell out of its way!  Why we need to spend tens of millions of dollars to “study” that phenomenon is beyond my comprehension.

PT of Seattle writes:

I want to thank you for your diligence in pursuing accurate data on the Skagit River.  One of the concerns I have is that all of the other river systems for those 4 historic floods also experienced severe flooding.  Why wouldn’t the Skagit have experienced the same kind of floods?  I don’t think you can do away with those 4 flood events even though the Stewart data is as you have put it highly questionable.

Excellent question and observation.  You stated that we cannot do away with the 4 historic floods, that we have to assign a value to them.  To that I am in total agreement.  I think we should use Stewart's 1918 values as they show and are justified by using data collected on the Baker and Sauk rivers.  Values referenced in WSP 612 (1929) and again in WSP 1527 (1961).  Stewart did no measurements on the Baker and Sauk rivers in 1923.

Location

 

Drainage

area

1897

1909

1917

 

Maximum

discharge

 

Maximum

discharge

 

Maximum

discharge

 

sq. mi.

 

sec.-ft.

 

sec.-ft.

 

sec.-ft.

Skagit River Power Camp

1,090

 

47,400

 

63,500

 

47,400

Cascade R. Power Camp

222

 

40,000

 

26,000

 

52,000

Sauk River at Darrington

293

 

44,000

 

40,000

 

36,000

Suiattle River at mouth

345

 

55,000

 

38,000

 

45,000

Baker R. below Anderson Cr.

184

 

36,700

 

46,200

 

36,700

Total

 

 

222,000

 

214,000

 

197,000

Skagit R. below Baker River (i.e. The Dalles)

 

 

205,000

 

185,000

 

175,000

Skagit River nr. Sedro-Woolley

2,930

 

171,000

 

169,000

 

157,000

Source: Stewart July 1918 Skagit River Flood Report - Retyped, Appendix J

I am not saying those floods did not happen.  I am not saying those were not large floods because they were, just like 1990, 1995 and 2003 were large floods.  How large they were is what is at issue. 

"All the other river basins during those years also had huge floods."  Again, I agree, but as the below research shows us, just saying the other rivers had big floods is not good enough.

I picked 4 rivers at random and using the USGS Peak Flow data, I was hoping to show the number of floods each river had.  However, Peak Flow only records the peak flow during each water year.  We know that the Skagit reached flood stage 5 times in 22 days in 1995, however they only recorded the largest event.  The only other way of getting all the flood events is to go through the daily flow data for each river and I just do not have enough time to do that.

Given the Peak Flow limitation some pretty interesting data has come out of this exercise.

The Skagit has more recorded data then any of the other river systems.

The Deschutes near Rainier which reaches flood stage at a little over 3,000 cfs (I think we have drainage ditches that carry that much water) between 1949 and 2003 registered peak flows over flood stage 38 times.  The Skagit 32 times.

The Nooksack a completely uncontrolled river system which you would have expected would have equaled the Skagit, between 1945 and 2003 recorded 33 peak flows over flood stage.  The Skagit 36 for the same time frame.  Also interesting on the Nooksack is that the 1917 and 1921 flood gage heights have been equaled or exceeded 4 times.  With the exception of the 2003 event they've never been even close on the Skagit.  I think this shows us the importance of the dams on flood flows on the Skagit or just how wrong Stewart was.

The Snoqualmie near the town of Snoqualmie between 1958 and 2003 recorded 36 peak flows over flood stage.  The Skagit during the same time period recorded only 28.

The Snohomish at the town of Snohomish between 1941 and 1966 recorded 25 peak flows over flood stage.  The Skagit during the same time recorded only 15.  The "Big Floods" on the Snohomish have been estimated during 1906 (10 ft over flood stage), 1917 (6.5 feet over flood stage and 1921 (5.8 feet over flood stage).  The 1921 flood was almost equaled or exceeded 4 times during that time period.  On the Skagit, Stewart has the 1917 flood at 17 feet over flood stage and the 1921 flood at 19.6 feet over flood stage.  On the Skagit, only during the 2003 event when the Sauk had over a 100 year event and we had more storage behind the dams have we even came close to repeating the 1921 event and I am sure that we would have equaled or exceeded the 1917 event using his 1923 flows.  If you use Stewarts 1918 flood flows, in 2003 we exceeded the 1897, 1909 and 1917 flood events.  The point I think this shows is that the 1917 event using Stewarts 1923 figures repeated itself once in 86 years which if we had accurate data to work from would make the 2003 event far greater then a 30 year flood event.

The Snohomish at the town of Monroe between 1964 and 2003 recorded 28 peak flows above flood stage.  The Skagit 23 during the same time frame.

BOTTOM-LINE:  Just because another river has a flood event doesn't mean that the Skagit will be the same in either occurrence or intensity.  Also, just because other rivers had major floods during 1897, 1909, 1917, and 1921, doesn't mean that Stewart got the flows right, especially since on other river systems the flows during some of those events have been equaled or exceeded several times. 

I firmly believe based on the evidence above that the 2003 flood event (estimated by the Corps of Engineers to have carried "unregulated" 209,000 cfs at The Dalles, 202,000 cfs at Sedro-Woolley) equaled or exceeded the 1897 flood event.  The greatest error in Stewarts 1923 work product is that he did not take into account the flows that he had previously taken into account and was published by USGS in WSP 612 and 1527 on the Baker and Sauk rivers.  You simply cannot reach the 1923 values given to flows at The Dalles by using the 1918 data.

 CH of Olympia writes:

Accurate hydraulic data, minimal storage behind the dams, emergency overflow levee, if all these things were done the people of Skagit County just might accomplish responsible flood control in our lifetimes.  Now if they would only do something about those land use policies.

I couldn’t agree more.

SW of Mt. Vernon writes:

We can get angry or we can get something done!

Again, I couldn’t agree more.  This whole web page effort is about providing the general public as well as government officials all the information available in order to get “something done”.  I get angry when the information is not used or otherwise ignored.  I get angry when the government drags its feet on endless studies, using highly questionable hydraulic data, to put forth projects that we cannot afford.  I get angry when government agencies from the local level to the state and federal level do not enforce regulations resulting in us going from $6,000,000 in damages in 1962 to over 3 billion dollars in 2006.  I get angry when those that have caused these conditions now expect all of Skagit County and the American taxpayer to bail them out of the condition they have created and offer nothing but the bill in return.  And then I ask myself, is it anger or frustration and disappointment that we as a community that has known about the severity of the flood problem since our forefathers moved into this beautiful valley have done such a terrible job of managing our resources.  That we as a community cannot come together, pick a project, properly analyze the project, provide the funding and resources to build the project, is perhaps the single most embarrassing aspect of living in Skagit County.  If it is not us who solves the problem, then who?  If not now, then when?  What was stated in an editorial in 1909 is still true today, “If necessary, the taxpayers should not hesitate to bond the county for any needed sum, and no man who has the interests of his county at heart will balk at such a move.  It is no time for hysterics or petty politics—calm judgment, definiteness of purpose and indefatigable and well directed energy must now be combined.” (Source:  Dec. 4, 1909 issue of “The Herald-Recorder,”)  Isn’t it time we took that advice?

The Angry Citizen