AC NOTE: This month’s editorial is about some of the “tough issues” that in my opinion the Skagit County Flood Control Zone District Advisory Committee, along with many others, have yet to adequately, if at all, address. Issues that are admittedly controversial but if not adequately addressed will ultimately lead to the demise once again of any and all flood control/risk reduction measures. To some degree some of the issues have been addressed previously in other editorials on this web page. For example, See the Angry Citizen March 2008 “The Skagit Fact Nine Scenarios”. I’m sure you all remember the politically motivated consortium of local developer and urban interest whose purported “mission” was “to advise and educate citizens, businesses, and local governments on issues and impacts of flood policies and regulations with attention to safety and quality of life concerns of the region”. The group only seems to surface when it is politically in their interest. No doubt when the new flood maps are published in the next couple of weeks we will hear from them again. So I apologize in advance if some of the below discussions seem like you have heard them before. No doubt you have and will hear them again, and again, and again as we continue on our 120 year quest for responsible flood damage reduction.
DISCUSSIONS NOBODY WANTS TO HAVE
One of the most frustrating things about being involved with the flood issue in Skagit County is the seemingly endless attempts by some individuals to duck the controversial issues or even by some, to purposely mislead the public on the issues. This editorial is an attempt to begin these discussions. As always, your comments, opinions, and opposing and/or supportive views are not only welcomed but also solicited.
Discussion: The severity of flooding in the Skagit River basin is entirely manmade. (See Angry Citizen September 2006 The Realities of Flood Control in Skagit County.)
Floods may be caused by too much rain and/or melting snow and it is true that over 60% of the Skagit flood flows come from uncontrolled rivers (Sauk and Cascade). However, in the lower basin the severity of the flooding is entirely decided by two land masses. The placement of the levees on the edge of the river first redirects the river from its natural course (i.e. Gages Slough), then because the river is artificially funneled into a much too narrow channel the river level is increased in height and velocity. (See Graphic Summary of Increases in 1990 Flood Levels Due to Levee System) Because the levees sit on the edge of the river, the funneling effect also raises the water levels upstream of the BNSF railroad bridge and has the effect of putting the City of Burlington, United General Hospital and the second land mass, Interstate 5, at risk.
Because of the WSDOT irresponsible engineering of I-5, no floodwaters will cross I-5 until they reach Gages Slough. Everything south of Gages Slough will become a deep pond. Everything east of Interstate 5 will experience much deeper flooding then historically experienced due to the I-5 acting as a weir (overtopping dam) as well as all the landfill brought into the floodplain for development purposes. This is true for both Mt. Vernon and Burlington.
Also, it is noteworthy to recognize that after the crest of the river passes The Dalles the amount of time the Skagit River stays above flood stage is directly attributable to the amount of water that PSE and Seattle City Light dams release and when they release it. Again, an act of man, not God.
Discussion: 80,000 plus vehicles use the freeway on a daily basis. It must be kept open at all cost.
WSDOT would have us all believe that the Interstate cannot be allowed to shut down due to the impacts on commerce much like their irresponsible construction of the Interstate in Lewis County produced during the 1990, 1996 and 2007 flood events. (See Flooding in the Chehalis River Basin: Synthesis) This despite the fact that they designed the freeway to overtop not only in Lewis County but in the Gages Slough and Burlington High School areas as well. They submit that the only way to stop the overtopping of the I-5 would be to provide 100-year protection levees to Burlington and Mt. Vernon. There is a flaw in this reasoning. If they raised Highway 9 in two spots near Clear Lake there would be an emergency transportation corridor available to commerce at a much reduced cost to the taxpayers vs. 100 year levees for Burlington. Higher reinforced levees are needed on the Mt. Vernon side of the river from the BNSF Bridge to the Interstate not because of the impacts on the Interstate but because of safety issues for the irresponsible residential/commercial development east of the Interstate. As previously discussed, the severity of which is directly attributable to the construction of I-5. Which leads one to believe that the support of the construction of monster levees has more to do with protecting the liability of WSDOT then the protection of commerce.
Discussion: Everyone is impacted by flooding therefore everyone should pay for it.
It is hard to argue against the fact that all County residents are impacted in one way, shape, form, or another by flooding events. However, it is not hard to argue that not everyone is impacted to the same degree. It’s one thing to have floodwaters in your house or business and entirely another to not to be able to go shopping for a couple of days because the road is underwater. Nor is it hard to argue that floodplain residents benefit more from flood risk reduction projects then do residents and businesses who were smart enough not to locate on the bottom of a river. Homeowners/commercial interest/developers in the urban floodplain would receive not only protection from the infamous 100-year event but would receive higher property values, lower flood insurance payments if any at all, ultimately lower dike district assessments and in an act of total stupidity would be allowed to build flat on the ground thus decreasing construction cost while increasing the potential damages for events greater then the 100-year event. Oh yeah, and the 66% of the people who do not live in the floodplain…..well they get the bill. Somehow that sounds like a hard sell to the voters who don’t live in the floodplain.
Discussion: What are the options for paying for the 200 million plus dollars worth of “measures” the Advisory Committee has potentially endorsed?
Basically there are 4 options on the table.
Option One: The statutes (RCW 86.15 and RCW 82.12) authorize the County Commissioners to raise property taxes without a vote of the people in the amount up to .75¢ per $1,000 worth of assessed value. (See Funding Options) Forget the fact that in 1979 the voters turned down flood control projects which closely resemble the current “measures” by an overall no vote of 71.4%. That percentage was generally consistent throughout the county, including Mount Vernon and Burlington, areas described as having the most to gain from the project. Mount Vernon, which would receive protection from floods with a 1-in-500-year chance of occurrence, voted against the project by a 68.3 percent vote. And although Burlington would receive 100-year flood level protection from the project, voters there rejected the proposition by a 65.9 percent vote. (See 11/7/79 SVH, Decisive defeat at polls –Flood control future unclear; See also 1979 Levee Improvement Project Historical Index) Which would render Option One to a “completely ignore the taxpayers, government knows what’s best for them” scenario.
Option Two: Same as Option One except the County Commissioners require a vote of the people before raising property taxes.
Option Three: Raise the sales tax by .005¢ by a vote of the people. (See Video Presentation to Skagit County Commissioners, Re: Plan B; and Plan B Presentation Handout)
Option Four: Some yet undetermined combination of Options Two and Three. (See Angry Citizen March 2008 E-mail discussion re: Plan B.)
At the last Advisory Committee meeting the subject of financing the flood risk reduction “measures” came up for the first time in 18 months worth of meetings. Sadly, the committee’s discussion degenerated into more of a “It’s not the time to be discussing this”, discussion instead of how are we going to fund the “measures”. It was suggested that until we have 4 or 5 projects that the committee wants to fund that nothing should be taken to the voters. In response I have to say that I agree that nothing at this point in time should be taken to the voters because we don’t have enough information about any of the measures to recommend a vote on, HOWEVER, wouldn’t it be nice to know what the Advisory Committee wants to use as a funding mechanism? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the committee was on the right track and had the support of the local community? It does not matter what the projects are, you’re still going to have to pay for them. When is the last time you made a major purchase and didn’t have a clue how you were going to finance it? Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the local Chambers of Commerce, the ag community, the Board of Realtors, etc., were on board and supportive of the committee’s recommendations?
Perhaps some on the committee view delaying the public discussion as a strategic maneuver much like they have on the 3-bridge corridor (i.e. telling the public one thing while having no intention of actually doing it). If property taxes are used as the vehicle to fund the Flood Control Zone District “measures” it just wouldn’t be productive to let the 66% of the people who do not live in the floodplain know that the diking districts plan on exempting themselves from the countywide tax like they did on the countywide drainage utility tax, if in fact that is what they plan on doing. Perhaps instead of calling it an exemption they will claim a “credit” for the money already paid into the diking district by their businesses and residents which would translate to no more money being paid into the district by the floodplain residents then what they are currently paying. Which would sound a lot like “you on the hills pay more in taxes, we on the floodplain don’t” approach which sounds a lot like an exemption to additional taxes being paid.
Personally, I do not favor property taxes of any kind but if the community supports that avenue of funding then I feel that if a property tax is to be used it must first be put to the voters and it must be on a sliding scale based on the benefits received. Such as .10¢ per thousand for the 66% of the people who do not live in the floodplain vs. .75¢ per thousand for the 34% of the people who have chosen so poorly as to where to locate their businesses and residences. What I prefer is a voter-approved sales tax instead of a property tax. This way, those who shop at the businesses will pay. Businesses who I might add will be the direct benefactor of the flood risk reduction “measures”.
Discussion: If the County uses taxes from the District to fund private levee projects, does this expose the County taxpayers to additional liability?
To my knowledge, this question has not been addressed on any level to date. Currently since the levees are owned, maintained and operated by individual governmental entities (i.e. Diking Districts), they and they alone are responsible for any damages due to levee failures or any other level of damages. If the County makes any project owned and operated by another public entity possible through funding from the Countywide District does that make the County a partner in crime and thus exposing County taxpayers to liability they otherwise would not be a party to? Remember that the project would have to be identified in the County Flood Hazard Management Plan before it could receive funding. I do not have the answer to that question but surely before funding anything in the floodplain the County deserves a legal memorandum on the subject by the County Prosecutors Office. Maybe one of the solutions is that the Dike Districts would be required to sign a hold harmless agreement with the Board of Supervisors of the Flood Control Zone District before any funds could be allocated.
Discussion: The Countywide Flood Control Zone District was never intended to finance individual projects.
Skagit County by Resolution dated September 1, 1970 formed the Countywide Flood Control Zone District. It was never activated for funding purposes. The stated purpose of the District was to “sponsor United States and State of Washington Flood Control Drainage Projects as authorized through any agency with powers to handle the same.” (See Resolution re Countywide Flood Control Zone District) The argument could clearly be made that the District was not formed to provide funding to private governmental district projects. This argument is further supported by letters sent to the Corps of Engineers on April 6, 1971 (See BOC letter to Corps re Flood Control Phases), May 8, 1975 (See Skagit County letter to Corps re sponsorship of the lower levee project) and September 13, 1977 (See Board of County Commissioners (BCC) Letter to Corps re sponsorship of the Levee Improvement Project via the Flood Control Zone District). This is probably nothing more than a formality that could be cleared up by an administrative resolution however in the other counties that have FCZDs we should check to see if any funding went to any projects that were not owned by those counties. It’s one thing to fund a county owned project with countywide taxes, it could be another if the project was owned entirely by another public or private entity. Further research and discussion of this issue is warranted.
Whatever eventually comes of any of these discussions let the discussions begin and let the information flow as freely as the floodwaters themselves.
LETS DO IT OURSELVES!! LETS DO IT NOW!! LETS DO IT WITH VOTER APPROVAL!!
May your fields be ripe and budding and your rivers full and flooding (because its the only time people pay attention).
The Angry Citizen
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