The Realities of Flood Control in Skagit County
Before one can try and find a solution to the “flooding problem” in Skagit County one must first accept what some would call the harsh realities’ of the issue. First, there is nothing that even remotely resembles an “Act of God” with respect to the severity of flooding in Skagit County for the severity is entirely a man-made problem.
The severity (i.e. the damages) of the flood event is entirely dependent on basically three things: 1) Dam Storage: The level of the lakes behind Upper and Lower Baker and Ross Dams and the timing of the release of that water; 2) Levees: the impacts of the levees primarily those owned by Dike District 12; and finally 3) Land Use Planning: Or perhaps more aptly put the lack thereof.
Locally referred to as the “no brainer” aspect of flood control it has long been recognized that the impacts of the dams are the greatest “asset” or “liability” depending on your point of view. (See Historical Dam Building And Their Impacts On Floods - PDF (1924-1969) If operated properly, the dams have the capability of storing enough flood waters to allow the crest of the Cascade and Sauk Rivers (the only totally uncontrolled rivers in the County but produce 60% of the flows during floods) to pass Concrete before waters behind the dams are released. This produces a prolonged flood event but greatly reduces the severity of the flood as was shown in 2003 when the dams were operated properly. Without the storage provided in 2003 the Skagit River, according to the Corps of Engineers, would have experienced a flow of 209,000 cfs at The Dalles downstream of Concrete. The Federal Governments’ unwillingness to operate the dams in a proper manner is disconcerting at best and unfathomable at worst. The severity of the flood event and the damages incurred is directly attributable to the operation of the dams. God didn’t build the dams or operate them. Thus the severity of the floods is an act of man not God.
In the lower valley, the severity of the flood event is directly attributable to the levee system, primarily Dike District 12 (“DD12”) around Burlington. The impacts of those levees have the affect of raising the natural flow of flood waters in the 1990 and 1995 flood events .5 feet at the Sedro-Woolley sewage treatment plant to 2-3 feet in the Clear Lake-Sterling communities, to 4 feet in the lower Nookachamp valley. Because of the placement of the levees on the edge of the river (something the Dike Districts and Skagit County have been told since 1897 they needed to set back … See 1897 Capt. Harry Taylor Annual Report , and 1911 Clapp Report) the impacts of DD12’s levees also sends an unnatural amount of water downstream towards Mount Vernon. Before the construction of DD12’s levees the majority of the flood waters flowed south of Burlington city limits from Gages Slough south to the river and out over the floodplain towards Padilla Bay, (the old mouth of the river). After the 1917 flood event the editor of the Burlington Journal stated, “. . . Burlington is so fortunately situated that it does not require a system of dikes to protect it from floods . . .”, however this attitude changed after the 1921 flood (the most serious flood event in the 20th century (See 12/22/21 CT, 12/31/21 C.H. ) put floodwaters in downtown Burlington. The point being is that all the water that used to flow from Gages Slough south to the river is now being either stored upstream or forced downstream. God didn’t build the levees on the edge of the river, man did. God never intended for there to be 12 feet of water between the levees. Man did that. Thus, once again, the severity of the flood is directly attributable to the acts of man, not God.
LAND USE PLANNING
Arguably the cities of Mt. Vernon and Burlington have the worst land use planning in the State of Washington with respect to development in floodplains. Since 1962 the amount of damages that would be incurred during a major flood event has went from an estimated $6,000,000 (Source: 8/23/62 B.J.) to now over $3,000,000,000 of development and infrastructure is at risk (Source: Corps of Engineers 1/22/2003). Which now begs the question, should multi-million dollar flood control projects be used as the reward for bad local land use planning? Should local governments be rewarded by the taxpayers of our country, state or for that matter even the county for trashing the SEPA, SMA, GMA, or local regulations mandated by the NFIP? Should the taxpayers foot the bill for governments on all levels not enforcing regulations? Even FEMA, perhaps the most maligned federal agency in our country’s history has admitted that it bears some of the responsibility for the mismanagement of the Skagit River floodplain, “Certainly FEMA bears some responsibility for the increased flood damage potential in the Skagit Valley. . . . we are dealing with several generations of bad land-use decisions, coupled with a muddled and complex political environment.” (Source: FEMA e-mail dated 10/15/2001) Which begs the question, “If government created the situation shouldn’t government work together to fix it? God didn’t build $3,000,000,000 worth of development and infrastructure on the bottom of a river, man did. God didn’t promulgate regulations and then refuse to enforce them, government did. Thus, once again, the severity of the flooding events in Skagit County are not an Act of God but and act of man. Those responsible should be held accountable for their actions.
WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Any solution to flood control projects must meet the 3 E’s, Engineering, Economic and Environmental. Once those three are met, the project must then meet political acceptance by the local populace. For the past 30 years I have looked at everything from a dam on the Sauk River (a more absurd place to put a dam has never been proposed), to dredging (so long as there are tides it will not work), to set-back levees (certainly a solution but would cost too much and the local farmers are not willing to give up the farmland), to several overflow levees (meets all the 3 E’s but fails the political acceptance by the local farmers), to the Avon By-Pass (we can’t afford a 300 million dollar project), to higher levees (only further provides a sense of false security as there are only really two types of levees, those that have failed and those that will), to dam storage/operation (will certainly help lower damages but would only be an effective solution when coupled with other measures).
So you ask, if none of those solutions will work, what should we do to help alleviate the man-made severity of the floods? I offer the following for your consideration:
1. Hydraulic Data: First and foremost we have to be satisfied that the hydraulic data we are using is accurate data. A large portion of this web site is dedicated to the premise that the hydraulic data we have been using is highly questionable and incomplete at best and scientifically and historically unsupported as well. (See James E. Stewart Skagit River Flood Reports And Assorted Documents: A Citizen Critical Review Whitepaper, Updated and Republished 7/11/2006) In that vein Skagit County has hired the world renowned engineering firm of Northwest Hydraulics Corp. (“NHC”) to perform their own independent scientific review of the historic data to offer their scientific opinions and interpretation of the data. Further, FEMA has recently promised the residents of Skagit County that they will have their expert, Will Thomas (retired 30-year career employee of USGS) of the Michael Baker Corporation, review the aforementioned Whitepaper and offer his interpretations. And finally, Representative Rick Larsen has formerly asked USGS in Washington DC to review the Whitepaper and officially comment on its contents. It will indeed be interesting to see how three “independent reviews” of the same data will pan out. If all three feel that the data we are currently using is unquestionable and reliable, then so be it. That is what we will deal with. However, if they truly use science based on historical fact, I don’t think that is what they will find based on the historic record contained in the Whitepaper. Rather a more logical finding would be that the figures for the historic floods produced by Mr. Stewart in 1918, and supporting data published by USGS in WSP 612 in 1929 and again referred to in WSP 1527 in 1961 would be far more realistic data to rely upon if in fact the historic floods can be used at all. As one FEMA high ranking official stated, “Those weren’t sunny days.” In that statement I concur. The historical record confirms they were not sunny days. A value must be placed on those flood events. As stated, the 1918 data supports realistic flood flows, and would change the 1923 four outlier floods (1897, 1909, 1917 and 1921) to fit the flood frequency curve in a much more accurate manner.
2. Dam Storage: As stated, this is the “no brainier” approach to providing relief to major flood events. If permanent storage is so abhorrent to the environmental community on some perceived notion that it would be harmful to fish; then change the operating procedures so that Lower Baker Dam could be lowered dramatically prior to the storms arriving. Instead of the Corps of Engineers taking control of the dams at 90,000 cfs change it to 40,000 cfs. All we need to achieve is to hold the waters behind Ross and the Baker dams until the crest of the Sauk River passes The Dalles. If the BPA and the Corps of Engineers don’t want to pay for it then the possibility of Skagit County residents paying for it should be explored. All stakeholders including but not limited to the Cities and Towns, WSDOT, BNSF, dike districts, and let’s not forget FEMA who has admitted their liability for development in the floodplain, should be willing to pay for this storage availability. PSE has the right to expect to be compensated for providing storage, however, the question their Board of Directors needs to address, is what if any liability do they incur for not providing it? What other business in this country besides the tobacco industry has the authority to run their business while destroying peoples lives? Or perhaps a more pleasant way of putting it would be what kind of a corporate neighbor knows they could prevent a large part of the damages to $3,000,000,000 worth of development and infrastructure and refuses to do so for a few hundred thousand dollars worth of electricity?
3. Emergency Overflow Spillway: If we are successful in obtaining accurate hydraulic data and the 100 year flood flows are adjusted downward as the historic record strongly suggest they should be, and if we could achieve the added protection of additional storage either through voluntary or compensation means, then I feel that the cheapest, most environmental friendly and engineering feasible project we could build would be an emergency overflow spillway in the Avon area. This spillway would only be activated when flows reach 145,000 cfs at the Mt. Vernon gage. In the last 82 years the spillway would only have had to be used once and possibly twice (1990 and 1995). The flood waters would then flow naturally towards Padilla Bay which is where they are going to flow anyway during a major flood event. It’s not like we would be spilling the entire flow of the river. During the 1990 flood event the spillway would only have been spilling water for a period of 11 hours for an average of 5,100 cfs per hour. Granted, during a 100 year event the spillway could be spilling as much as 30-50,000 cfs but what is the alternative? To have the water flow through the City of Burlington or be forced into the Samish River Basin?
There would be many benefits to the spillway approach:
a. It would allow the flood waters to pass the City of Burlington and spill onto the floodplain in a safe manner before it reaches the City of Mt. Vernon thus saving the Urban areas from catastrophic flooding.
b. By allowing the farmland to be subject to flooding (once in the past 82 years) it would preserve the farmland from Urban encroachment.
c. By designating the area as a floodway it would prohibit further development in the natural corridor where under current conditions the floodwaters are going to go anyway thus decreasing future damages. Further, it would keep the floodway designation out of the Urban areas which under current conditions in all likelihood it will be placed.
d. Out of all the projects looked at, this could be the most affordable; provide the most benefits, meet the three E’s, perhaps even be acceptable to the majority of the voters who should have the final say in any proposed project. Admittedly, the people living in this floodway corridor would object, but what they must realize is that if we do nothing, which is what we have done for the last 100 years, during any catastrophic levee failure or even if the levees hold under current conditions the water will end up in that corridor as they have in so many floods In the past.
e. What about the fish you ask? Wouldn’t providing an emergency overflow spillway put fish out onto the floodplain? The simple answer is yes. Once in the last 82 years we would have impacted some fish. In the last 82 years there have been many levee failures. The most recent on Fir Island in 1990. How many fish were impacted by the levee failures? If there were no levees, how many fish are stranded on the floodplain? The fish issue like any other adverse impact can be mitigated if given a chance.
4. We must put a stop to the seemingly endless “studies” of the Skagit River. I now have in my possession over 80 reports, surveys, examinations, GDM’s, and feasibility analysis dating as far back as 1890. If you can’t get it right in 116 years, you probably are never going to get it right. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on government and private consultant studies. All we are doing is providing job security for government employees and making over priced private consultants rich. Stop it! Pick a project, identify the impacts, mitigate the impacts, and build it. Stop studying it.
5. We do not need any more regulations. What we need is for the current regulations to be enforced. Governments on all levels have failed in this regard. Local governments failure to enforce their regulations concerning the NFIP and FEMA’s failure to force local government to comply has led in large part to the over development of what has been described as the most dangerous floodplain on the West Coast. What good are regulations if they are going to be ignored? Is FEMA just a government insurance company only interested in selling flood insurance policies by promoting further development of floodplains by not enforcing their regulations? Whatever happened to government’s sole responsibility to protect the general safety health and welfare of its constituents?
6. Finally, I feel that any flood control project in Skagit County must be approved by the voters of Skagit County. If the voters don’t want to pay for the project, then they should not have it forced down their throats. This is not King County where the local residents speak and are ignored by their elected officials. If local governments feel that all of Skagit County must pay in order to subsidize the economic development of the communities that have foolishly built their towns on the bottom of a river then the voters should have the right and the voice to guide the project. Local governments that want all of Skagit County to pay for their protection should step up to the plate and tell the voters what they will be getting for their money. Will there be more access to the river? More public parks, boat ramps, or public fishing areas? Will the tax revenue generated by more development be used for more County Sherriff deputies, or improved roads in the rural areas? Will the Urban areas promise not to annex anymore floodplain farmland in return for flood protection? If the Urban communities want more flood protection which translates to increased property values, economic development and increased tax revenue then the rural areas should receive something more then the bill. I have been trying for the last three years to get local governments to address these kinds of issues. To date, local governments have failed to respond.
So there you have it, one man’s opinion. One man who has worked on this issue for 30 years and admittedly, or should I say obviously, feels passionately about the conclusions reached. If you agree or disagree with anything stated I would appreciate hearing from you. If you would like to formally respond I will print your response in its entirety.
The Angry Citizen