What's NewPlan B PresentationSearch the WebpageFlood Video Links
Home Page
About the AuthorAsk the Angry CitizenDocument DirectoryDwelley TributeFred Slipper SoliloquiesGlossary of Flood WordsHistorical ArticlesLinksPhoto GalleryQuote of the MonthRain Gauge
E-mail the AuthorE-mail List for UpdatesE-mail Webmaster

August 2007

EDITORIAL

DOES ANYBODY REALLY CARE?

If the documents posted for the month of August don’t put everyone on “information overload” I don’t know what will.  The presentations by FEMA/Corps of Engineers regarding the hydraulic modeling to justify the new Base Flood Elevations (“BFE’s”) (Source:  Skagit River Revised Flood Insurance Study Levee Scenario Discussion) provided a very good depiction of how the new BFE’s were determined based on FEMA policy guidelines that have been applied on a national level since April 2003.  (Source:  Appendix H to Guidelines and Specifications for Flood Hazard Mapping Partners)

USGS finally admitting that Stewart’s figures were questionable and due to a “recent recalculation did indicate that the original peak-discharge calculation by Stewart may be high, and it added to a body of evidence that indicates a revision in the 1921 peak discharge estimate is appropriate.”  (Source:  Re-evaluation of the 1921 Peak Discharge at Skagit River near Concrete, Washington)  The report and subsequent reduction in flood flows for the historic floods seems to confirm a USGS previous statement “uncertainty is a fundamental part of hydrology, science, and engineering” but fly’s in the face of another statement “it would be improper to use a lesser value even though it may lie within the error range.”  (Source:  USGS Response to Updated Whitepaper)

When you combine all of the above with an independent technical review which clearly shows the statistical improbability of James E. Stewart's claims of CFS at Concrete (Source:  Hromadka & Associates An Independent Technical Review – Comments on Flood Frequency Analyses for the Skagit River, Skagit County, Washington, and a forensic analysis which proves the Smith House in Hamilton never had water in it (Source:  WJE Smith House Forensic Report) even in the 1909 (245,000 cfs), 1917 (210,000) or 1921 (228,000) flood events until 1995 (166,000 cfs), one would could surmise that no one is listening.  There seems to be these overwhelming two bodies of thought processes that are on parallel tracks that will never merge into one train of thought that will form a consensus. 

However, having said that, one also has to wonder if anybody really cares.  I make that rather callous statement based on a local survey conducted by Skagit County.  The Skagit Natural Hazard Mitigation Team recently sent 7,613 surveys via US Postal Service bulk mail to Skagit River floodplain property owners.  Out of that number, only 492 surveys were returned for a reply rate of 6.46%.  (See Analysis of Skagit Natural Hazard Mitigation Team Surveys)  What the lack of responses strongly suggests is a terrible sense of complacency or a large false sense of security on the part of Skagit River floodplain residents especially those who live behind the levees since the majority of responses came from those residents.  This is nothing short of a huge embarrassment to the residents of Skagit County.

SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE CORPS/FEMA NEW BFE’S?

(Skagit River Revised Flood Insurance Study Levee Scenario Discussion)

Historical Perspective

First, the BFE figures are based on the 4 historic Stewart floods which are driving the whole process and so long as there remains doubt about those flood events the federal government is never going to be able to “sell” the new figures to local officials and residents, not that they have to based on their “process/procedures”.

Second, while I applaud the attempt by the Corps and FEMA to incorporate local history into is report (something USGS seemingly cannot or will not do), I do believe that they have inadvertently misrepresented that history in their report in order to justify their findings. 

First example… in the presentation they show a 1917 picture of the floodwaters in Burlington and make the verbal argument that the floodwaters had to have been at least 4 feet deep.  What they don’t tell you is that the picture is taken east of the railroad line on Fairhaven Ave looking west and they want you to believe that all of Burlington was covered with water.  However, the Burlington Journal, a local weekly newspaper published in Burlington reported the following:

The Howard Freeman farm at Varney station (which was located adjacent to Gages Slough which was one mile south of Burlington City limits in 1917) was quite seriously damaged by the overflow caused by the break in the river dike on the old Freeman farm east of Varney.  Mr. Freeman’s fine new home and barn were damaged in some-extent.  The break in the river at the old Freeman farm, which was probably 800 feet in width, caused serious damage to the farms in the path of the overflow.  The break occurred when the river was at the highest point, the water stretched over a territory of about 2500 feet in width, carrying away the Great Northern and interurban highways, undermining the dwelling and carrying away the barn on the old Freeman farm, and covering the land with piles of driftwood.  The water found an outlet in the bay near Whitney.

During the height of the flood Sunday morning a foot of water from the overflow of the river from the east covered a small portion of the residence and business districts of Burlington, the water flowing out that night when the river fell.  On account of poor drainage and inadequate sewerage, there is still some water in the low places in some of the districts, which will soon all pass into the drains.  (Source:  1/4/18 B.J.)

In an accompanying article prepared in the same issue the Burlington Journal, it stated the following:

Building a series of ununiform dikes to protect districts here and there through the lowlands utterly fails as a solution, meaning only future disaster when the river runs riot during flood periods.  During flood periods when the river reaches the point that dikes are not adequate to control it, it overflows its banks unless other artificial means are provided to carry off the surplus water.  Government engineers, who have studied Skagit river flood problems with the view of affording relief to districts subject to overflow, declare that concrete spillways should be built to take care of the surplus water.  Improvements of this character should be maintained by the government, state and county.  Because Mt. Vernon’s big dikes kept it dry, or Burlington is so fortunately situated that it does not require a system of dikes to protect it from floods is mighty poor consolation to the people of the delta districts threatened with overflow and devastation every recurring flood, . . . (Source:  1/4/18 B.J.)

The Corps also does not mention that the levees east of Burlington (Fairhaven) were in some places 4,000 feet further away from the river then they are today.  Likewise, the Corps does not mention that the Skagit River floodplain is anything but flat.  Areas like the Freeman farm mentioned above (outside Burlington City limits and adjacent to Gages Slough) can and in all likelihood did have several feet of water in the dwellings.  But that did not happen in downtown Burlington proper in 1917 or the editor would have been ran out of town for making the remarks he did.

Next in order to justify the depths of the new BFE’s in Burlington the report quotes two articles from the 1909 and 1921 flood (Sources:  Skagit County Courier: Skagit River Breaks Loose (1909), and 12/17/21 C.H.).  The 12/2/09 article was only two days after the 11/30/09 flood.  The Skagit County Courier (the forerunner to the Courier Times located in Sedro-Woolley) would not have been able to travel to Burlington in time to get the article to press as the old “Dollar” highway (Highway 20) would have been underwater.  The article is quoted as saying:  “The water broke the dykes guarding Burlington and almost the entire town was flooded. In the residence districts the water was over eight feet deep in places.”  What the Corps does not tell you is that the old residential district in Burlington proper in 1909 was at the far east end of Fairhaven and has Gages Slough running through it.  Gages Slough is the old river channel of the Skagit River that used to run to Padilla Bay (Source:  1/17/24 C.H.).  Of course, there would be water eight feet deep in places.  However, and more importantly, the Burlington Journal, the local newspaper in Burlington at the time stated the following concerning the 1909 flood:

He also says that Burlington is buried under from five to ten feet of water.   This is also untrue (just like it is untrue in the new FEMA BFE’s).  . . .  Burlington had about one foot of water in some of the streets , and there were many buildings over the town that were not even surrounded by water.  (Source:  12/3/09 B.J. )

For the 1921 flood the Corps relies on a quote from the Concrete Herald (Source:  12/17/21 C.H.), located some 35 river miles upstream of Burlington and yet another newspaper that could not have seen the flood waters in Burlington due to the fact that between Hamilton and Lyman the old highway would have been cut off.  The quote used was that “The entire city of Burlington was flooded to a depth of from three to five feet”. 

The Burlington Journal had the following to say about the floodwaters in Burlington:

Monday night, December 12, the dikes east and southeast of Burlington broke.  Tuesday morning at six o’clock the flood water covered Fairhaven Avenue, and in part the residence districts of the city.  At this time the entire lowlands lying east, west, south and in part northwest of Burlington were inundated.  The depth of water is on relative, the lamentable fact being that the area of low lands covered with water was wide-spread.  That certain spots escaped water, neither lessons the flood evil nor removes its threatening menace as the destruction wrought during the last three recurring flood periods of 1909, 1917 and 1921 encompass a wide area of lowlands, some districts suffering greater damages than others, the river in its flood course to the sea, evidently changing or seeking an outlet wherever river dikes could first be swept away.  . . .  While flood damages in Burlington have been large, the flood waters disappeared from the principal business and residence streets within 12 hours following the overflow.  (Source 12/16/21 B.J.)

Nowhere is there any mention of floodwaters 3 to 5 feet deep especially in the downtown business district which is where the Burlington Journal had their offices.  One would think that the owner of the newspaper would have found that interesting and something worth mentioning in his article.  Instead, there were “certain spots” that escaped water and the waters were gone “from the principal business and residence streets within 12 hours following the overflow.”

The Corps also uses a picture of the 1921 flood event to justify its FEMA BFE’s.  If you blow up the picture to 400% of its original size, you can tell that the picture was taken on the east end of Fairhaven between the residential and business district.  The Corps verbally stated that the marks on the telephone pole were “high water marks.”  While the marks do look like high water marks one has to wonder how the marks were left on only one of the poles.  None of the other poles or buildings shows these markings assuming that the marks on the one pole are watermarks very weak.

If the Corps and FEMA want to delve into local history to justify their BFE’s figures they should be looking at the articles referenced herein as well as the 12/22/21 CT and 12/31/21 C.H., both of which document that the 1921 flood was the largest of the four historic floods by people who were on the ground during the flood events, unlike Mt. Stewart who didn’t show up until a year later.  The most significant issue that neither the Corps, FEMA, USGS, nhc, PIE, Dr. Dr. Dr., and the Michael Baker Group have yet to address is did Mr. Stewart get the floods in the right order with respect to their severity?  Based on historical analysis including Stewart’s own field notebook and handwritten note I do not believe he did.  The seven points brought up by the Burlington Public Works Director are also valid concerns about using Mr. Stewarts data.  (See Memorandum for the Board of Skagit County Commissioners from Chal Martin Re: Comments on USGS 2007 Report)

My advice to the Corps and FEMA is that they stick with the “Process and Procedures” set forth in Appendix H to Guidelines and Specifications for Flood Hazard Mapping Partners  and quit trying to twist local history to justify their figures. 

Hydraulic Perspective

Just as the Corps and FEMA should not delve into local history I as a layperson should probably not move into the area of hydraulics but the one thing that I find wrong with the whole FEMA process is that it is preloading the floodplain with water that has already went downstream.  To “pretend that the levees are not there seems to me to be a preposterous scenario.  By the time the levees would fail, the majority of the water that the model is using has already went out into Skagit Bay, thus the Flo-2d model is artificially inflating the BFE figures.  Its not the modeling that is wrong, it’s the process of assumption.  However, given the fact that the “process” is being used on a national level and none of our congressional leaders have stepped up to the plate and challenged this process, the likelihood of changing it for Skagit County is not only slim and next to none, it is extremely unlikely.

The Future

The federal government has once again made it perfectly clear that they are not going to significantly lower the Stewart flows, especially the 1897 and 1909 flows which are the ones that are driving the BFE’s as well as keeping us from building 100 year certified levees.  HOWEVER, as stated in previous editorials herein it is time for us to move this situation forward and start raising money to build flood control projects that will alleviate much of the adverse effects of the federal hydrology.  This can be accomplished by Plan B A .005 sales tax can raise the money and the projects that could be built in a short amount of time will be the Sedro-Woolley Sewage Treatment Plant levee, the Anacortes Water Treatment Plant levee, and the Town of LaConner Ring Dike.  After those are completed we will be able to widen the three bridge corridor and construct an emergency release structure on the right bank of the levee system that will allow the 100 year flood to get pass the City of Burlington, pass Interstate 5, and onto the floodplain in a safe manner before it gets to Mt. Vernon.  This would have the immediate effect of doing away with the floodway designation for those communities and could have the impact of lowering the BFE figures, thus making 100 year certified levees affordable in the future.  To the farming community that would be impacted by the emergency relief structure I say this, your needs should be addressed before a single shovel of dirt is moved.  If we had this system (including the dam storage we have now) in place since 1924 we would have only had to dump the water once in the last 83 years (which should be another huge red flag on just how wrong the hydrology is).  Once in 83 years is not a bad price to pay for the preservation of the best farmland in America (Source:  9/3/25 Argus).

LETS DO IT OURSELVES!  LETS DO IT NOW!!

May your fields be ripe and budding and your rivers full and flooding (because its the only time people pay attention). 

 The Angry Citizen

Back to the top