November 2006 Ask the Angry Citizen
THE JUDAS OF THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST
Before I begin this month’s editorial I feel it necessary to make an introductory statement. I no longer live in the Skagit River floodplain and haven’t since 1983. I don’t own any property in the floodplain. I’m not a member of any development or environmental group. I don’t stand to make any money or lose any money by anything that happens on the Skagit River floodplain. I have never been paid for any of my involvement although I have been offered money for my work. My entire involvement has been motivated solely in search of the truth about the Skagit River floods and their history. I am a firm believer that all of us owe a commitment to give something back to our communities. Some people become little league baseball coaches; others work for civic organizations or food banks and help the less fortunate. Providing information to the public on what I consider to be the most important issue facing the residents of Skagit County is my way of providing public service. It’s what I do and I am proud of that service. So, in that vein, I offer the following editorial for your perusal. Agree or disagree, I invite your thoughts and comments.
QUESTIONS CONCERNING THE SKAGIT HYDROLOGY
In December 2002 I and a lot of other people reviewed a draft copy of the Corps of Engineers Hydraulic Study of the Skagit River and had some concerns. I was asked to give a presentation to the Skagit River Flood Control Advisory Committee about those concerns. Concerns like the Corps attributing 5,000 cfs to Nookachamps Creek flowing into the Skagit during flood events. Having lived in the Nookachamps not far from Nookachamps Creek I knew that no water from Nookachamps Creek makes it into the Skagit River during the peak of a flood as the Skagit early on reverses the flow in Nookachamps Creek (yes water can flow upstream) and any inflow from Big Lake into the Nookachamps is forced back into Beaver Lake. However, my main concern was that the Corps hydrology figures were being completely driven by a 1923 Report by USGS concerning 4 historic flows. The 1897, 1909, 1917 and 1921 flood events. The figures assigned to those events are 275,000 cfs, 260,000 cfs, 220,000 cfs and 240,000 cfs respectively. The response that I received from the Corps of Engineers project manager was nothing short of extraordinary. No less then 11 times in a 14 minute rant did he inform the audience that I was not a hydraulic engineer and therefore was not qualified to question the Corps hydrology. His message was translated to mean that “We’re the Federal government. Unless you’re a scientist don’t question our work.” From that point on things have deteriorated with respect to local government and local citizens’ respect for federal agencies and their employees. Indeed, subsequent events have turned loyal citizens who supported federal agency involvement into Angry Citizens.
In January 2003 I authored a memorandum titled “A Historical Investigation into the Skagit River Flood Levels”. Admittedly it was not my best piece of work. However, it did contain 12 pages concerning the 4 historical floods which was in fact a pretty good piece of work based on the documentation that I had at that time. Again, the response I received from the federal government was nothing short of extraordinary. The Corps stated in part in a letter dated 2/21/03 the following:
“If there are known errors in the derivation of a peak flow, it is necessary to take these up with the USGS as they are in charge of producing this data. Given that an analysis was done in 1918 by USGS, refined in 1923, looked at again and republished in 1961 and is put on the USGS website tells us that these flows are their best estimate.” (Source: Seattle District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Response To Larry J. Kunzler’s Memorandum dated January 20, 2003, Entitled A Historical Investigation Into the Skagit River Flood Levels, 2/21/03)
What the above tells us is that the Corps of Engineers had not performed any work of their own to verify the Stewart figures that they were using, but instead, were completely deferring to USGS. After all, its on the internet, it must be true.
FEMA REGION INVOLVEMENT
What you need to know at this point is what I did not know in 2003. FEMA had hired the Corps of Engineers in 2001 to conduct its Flood Insurance Study for the Skagit River using the same hydrology the Corps had developed for the Skagit River General Investigation study. At the same time they had hired the Michael Baker Corporation (“MBC”) (http://www.mbakercorp.com), a private consulting company composed of many retired federal agency employees and who relies on 700 million dollar contracts from FEMA and the Corps of Engineers for their income, to oversee the Corps of Engineers hydraulic work. It was learned recently that the MBC had been in regular contact with the Corps hydrologist since 2002 and had in fact been FEMA’s point person to the Corps.
On January 23, 2004 I served the USGS with a FOIA request and was privileged to review Mr. Stewarts work product. The first thing that I found was that I was the first person to “look in the box” in 46 years. The documents that I copied from those files are published on this web site under the “Documents” index under USGS. On Valentines Day, 2004 I published a 53 page Whitepaper analyzing the documents. (See James E. Stewart Skagit River Flood Reports And Assorted Documents: A Citizen Critical Review Whitepaper) . Four months later USGS responded to the Whitepaper in a feeble attempt to make the issue go away. (See USGS Response To Whitepaper).
SKAGIT COUNTY PRIVATE CONSULTANT
You also need to know that in late 2003 Skagit County hired its own private consulting company, Pacific International Engineering, (“PIE”) to conduct its own independent hydraulic analysis of the flooding events and hydrology of the Skagit River. Suffice it to say that their analysis agreed at least in part with my own that the Stewart historical flood events were overestimated. Now granted, PIE is a highly controversial private consulting company that has been involved with many controversial projects around the State of Washington one or two of which it is alleged have been total disasters for the taxpayer (not unlike but not on the same level as the Corps and FEMA efforts in New Orleans). Using 20/20 hindsight it may or may not have been the best choice Skagit County could have made as many believe that PIE at this point, because of their involvement with other communities, had just about alienated every federal agency and elected official involved with flood control. However, it cannot be argued that they did not conduct an independent analysis of the historical flood flows using the same modeling efforts as the government agencies.
SKAGIT COUNTY’S REQUEST FOR INDEPENDENT REVIEW
Once the County was supplied with its own hydraulic analysis, (which agree or disagree with it, at a minimum raised serious legitimate challenges to the Stewart historical flood estimates), the County sought to obtain the federal governments cooperation. The County has consistently pursued a very illusive “independent review” of their work. First by the Corps of Engineers, then USGS, and finally FEMA.
CORP’S OF ENGINEERS “INDEPENDENT REVIEW”
The Corps idea of an independent review was to first send their hydrology, (approved and orchestrated by the MBC at the direction of FEMA), to the Corps of Engineers Hydrologic Engineering Center (“HEC Davis”) located at Davis, California. Now while this gives a whole new meaning to the fox guarding the hen house, there is no doubt that strictly speaking from a technical standpoint, based on what was submitted, that the technical analysis was more likely than not correct. However, there is no evidence that HEC Davis was ever made aware of the controversy surrounding the 4 historical flood events. There is no evidence that HEC Davis performed any “independent analysis” of those flood events.
Then came the request from Skagit County to meet with HEC Davis and have its hydrology report evaluated. All Skagit County requested was a “truly independent review”. What happened next was what turns government supporters into Angry Citizens:
The process to communicate information, technical approach, thought processes, scoping and ideas was not neutral. After an initial face to face meeting with HEC Davis staff and Seattle District staff, Skagit County’s consultant was not given direct access to the HEC Davis engineers, but was instead required to formally submit information through the Seattle District, while Seattle District staff continued to have direct informal and unfettered access without the presence of the County’s technical consultant. Further, this effort was not completed. It is unclear whether the review staff at HEC ever saw the County consultant’s final round of comments/concerns or had an opportunity to respond to them. Even when the County’s consultant went to the additional effort of preparing and submitting a specific report to recast these concerns in the Corps’ preferred “backcheck” format, the County never received a formal response confirming that these comments had been addressed. (See City of Burlington Letter to Colonel Michael McCormick, 11/1/2006)
USGS “INDEPENDENT REVIEW”
Having failed to obtain an “independent review” with the Corps of Engineers, next Skagit County tried the USGS. Once again a federal agency’s idea of an independent review meant that the Tacoma District sent the County’s work product to USGS, National Research Program, Paleohydrology and Climate Change Project, Lakewood, Colorado. Again, we’re back to the fox guarding the hen house approach. However, Dr. Jarrett, with the USGS Colorado office made some very interesting comments (See Review & Comments of "Draft Evaluation of Flood Peaks Estimated by USGS" by Robert D. Jarrett, Ph.D., USGS, National Research Program):
. . .I believe Mark Mastin’s (USGS) responses to specific questions concerning high-water marks (HWMs) and gage heights of historical floods raised by Mr. Chal Martins’ letter of December 13, 2004 are appropriate for section 3.2. . . .For example, the attached Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), flood-insurance study water-surface profiles (attached at end of review) are essentially flat through the entire Baker River study reach. (Page 2)
I believe that much of the uncertainty in the historical flood estimates that can be evaluated now resides in factors that likely may remain unknown (unless someone can find newspaper records, diaries, or other historical documents) and need to be evaluated. (Page 3)
Uncertainties for large flood estimates in complex channels are likely on the order of +/-20 to +/-25 percent (for the 1921 flood at the Concrete gage, a discharge uncertainty of over +/-40,000 ft3/s). (Page 4)
Stewart’s study of historical floods in the Skagit River basin had, by today’s standards short-comings, simplifications, incomplete documentation, no known photographic documentation, and took decades to review and complete the evaluation of flood hydrology for the Skagit River near Concrete. (Page 7)
What the first paragraph tells us is that the USGS Tacoma office was actively involved in trying to influence Dr. Jarrett’s review. (See Surface-Water Specialist Mark Mastin Letter to Skagit County Public Works Director Chal Martin, 2/10/2005) Also, it appears that FEMA data was sent to Dr. Jarrett. It is unclear at this point if it was at the request of FEMA, the MBC or the Seattle District Corps of Engineers but it does show us that other government agencies were trying to influence Dr. Jarrett’s work product.
The second paragraph is unbelievable to me. This web page consist of over 980 historical newspaper articles, many of them which address the historical flood events which are in direct conflict with Stewarts determinations. (See 10/21/1895 The Skagit News, 11/16/1896 TSN, 11/19/1896 SCT, 11/19/06 TSN-H, 12/22/21 CT, 12/31/21 C.H., 12/21/22 Argus, 11/26/24 MVDH) Either the articles were not sent to Dr. Jarrett or he chose to ignore them. Also, again as this web page demonstrates there are a plethora of historical documents including handwritten notes by Mr. Stewart himself that should have been reviewed and incorporated into Dr. Jarretts analysis. Among them are the following: See James E. Stewart Reflector Bar Notes, 11/26/24 Rundene Testimony, Joe Hart ltr to James E. Stewart, 6/21/23), NPRR letter and Robert Herzog Report, Notice and Minutes of Public Hearing In Connection With Preliminary Examination of "Skagit River, Washington, With A View To The Control Of Its Floods" Directed By Flood Control Act of May 31, 1924, Robert E.L. Knapp, Skagit County Engineer, Testimony for 11/26/1924 Hearing, Observations of JES (James E. Stewart) Work Product, and all of these just scratch the surface. The point I am trying to make is that there is no absence of “newspaper records, diaries, or other historical documents” to be reviewed. If Dr. Jarrett and USGS were truly interested in conducting an independent analysis it can be done. In order to find the truth one must first seek it.
The next two paragraphs are just as unbelievable to me. + or – 25% is a standard that is acceptable to scientist? Getting it within 40,000 cfs is acceptable? Using data that is “by today’s standards short-comings, simplifications, incomplete documentation, no known photographic documentation, and took decades to review and complete” is acceptable for considering multi-million dollar flood control projects? Indeed! This gives a whole new meaning to its “close enough for government work.”
FEMA REGION “INDEPENDENT REVIEW”
Sometime in late 2005 FEMA decided to let their “independent consultant” the MBC review Skagit County’s hydrology. In what should have been a huge red flag for me I received a copy of an e-mail from FEMA recommending that the MBC consultant visit my web page for information on the Skagit River history. At the time I was flattered by the comments about the web page and failed to realize the significance of who FEMA had copied in the e-mail; USGS Tacoma District and the Seattle District Corps of Engineers. What is important to remember is that by this time, FEMA had been funneling large sums of money into the Seattle District Corps of Engineers and the MBC for almost 4 years. Changing the Stewart figures for the four historic floods would mean that they had to re-do their hydraulic models for the Skagit Flood Insurance Study (“FIS”).
On December 26, 2005 I sent the MBC consultant via e-mail a listing of all the historical Stewart documents on my web page with links to the documents. On December 27, 2005 I received an e-mail answer from the MBC consultant which stated in part the following:
There is is certainly a difference of opinion about the four historic floods that occurred prior to systematic gaging on the Skagit River. I was aware that Bob Jarrett, USGS Denver, performed a review of these historic floods and have his review comments although I have not studied them in detail. Did Bob Jarrett have access to most of the USGS documents listed in your summary "Documents to Baker.doc" for his earlier review? . . .
In general, it is best to use historic floods in flood frequency analyses if "reasonable" values can be determined. Of course, this is a primarily issue for the Skagit River, what are reasonable values for the 1897, 1909, 1917 and 1921 floods? Should they used be in the flood frequency analysis?
On behalf of FEMA, I will be reviewing the information you have sent me as well as information as I have received from Pacific International Engineering, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA. I am a Senior Technical Consultant working for Michael Baker, Jr. in Alexandria, Virginia. As you know Michael Baker supports FEMA with respect to the National Flood Insurance Program. I have worked for Michael Baker for over 10 years. Prior to that I worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for 30 years mostly in the Office of Surface Water in Reston, VA, the USGS Headquarters.
Even though I worked for USGS for most of my career and the quality of USGS historic flood data is in question, I think I can provide an unbiased independent review of the data and information available in this study. I intend to review the data provided and confer with you, Joe Weber, USACE and others as appropriate and offer my opinion as to the appropriate 100-year flood discharge for the Skagit River.
While others had concerns about the consultant at MBC being a former USGS employee, I at the time did not. He put in writing that he was going to provide “an unbiased independent review of the data”. At this point in time I had no idea that the “independent consultant” the e-mail was sent to had been the point person to the Corps of Engineers in Seattle to develop their hydraulic model for the FIS.
The very next day, on December 28, 2005, I was approached by Skagit County to see if I would be interested in traveling to Washington DC, to present my research to the Corps of Engineers Headquarters and possibly to FEMA as it was clear we were not getting anywhere with the local representatives of the federal government. For me personally this opportunity had a two fold purpose. Not only was it an opportunity to assist our local government present its case to the Federal agencies but it was an opportunity to visit the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, and the World War II memorial as well as the Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt memorials and the Holocaust Museum. For me to say no to this opportunity is not within my character for I was still under the illusion that we (Skagit County) were going to receive an “independent review” of our information.
The trip to DC took place the first week of March, 2006. I prepared a PowerPoint presentation titled “Mr. Stewart’s Work Product Goes To Washington, D.C.” (See James E. Stewart Work Product Goes to D.C.). I have memorialized this trip in the following document: DC Trip Experience. For purposes of brevity I will not repeat everything in the document but I encourage you to review it.
To categorize the meeting with the Corps of Engineers as “a complete disaster” would be a mild understatement. The Seattle District and the Portland District were piped in via video conference. While the DC representatives were very polite and professional I cannot say the same for the Seattle District Commander. I got to experience first hand the rude, arrogant, pompous, what could only be categorized as a little girl hissy fit, that Skagit County officials had previously experienced in dealing with a Colonel gone wild. Her unprofessional performance was nothing short of embarrassing as much as a Michael Richards comedy routine. While the DC Corps people were polite they failed to ask any relevant questions concerning the Stewart presentation. One of the things I found most upsetting about the Colonel’s diatribe was that she stated HEC Davis in California had looked at and analyzed all this information and had discounted it. As previously stated, HEC Davis has never seen any of my presentation materials as the Seattle District never brought the validity of the Stewart figures to their attention. Only the Portland office seemed to get it. They asked the question, “Has anyone else reviewed the data you just presented.” I responded by saying that all of the supporting evidence to my presentation is displayed on my web site and that is exactly the reason I was in Washington DC as all of the federal agency people stationed in Washington State (USGS, the Corps and FEMA) seem to go out of their way to ignore the information.
Four days later was our meeting with FEMA and the “independent consultant” of the MBC. Surely here is where we will get our “independent review” and analysis of all the documentation I had previously sent to the consultant. I felt so strongly about the meeting that I locked myself in my hotel room all day on Monday in order to prepare for the meeting on Tuesday morning. I went over every piece of evidence that I had relied on for my presentation. I don’t think that I have ever been so prepared for a presentation.
The meeting began with my presentation. I sat directly across from the MBC consultant that previously had promised me the “independent review”. Directly to my left sat the FEMA Region X representative. After my presentation I was followed by the Skagit County Public Works Department Director. I stood up and went to the back of the room and stood in front of a legislative aide from Representative Larsen’s office. During the presentation by the Public Works Director the FEMA Region X representative got up and went to sit next to the legislative aide. He stated to her, “I don’t see anything different here do you?” She replied, “No, nothing at all.” The FEMA Region X representative then stated, “Okay, then we’re not going to do anything.” So before the presentation by Skagit County was completed a decision had already been made. I feel very strongly this decision was made before we ever left for DC.
After the County’s presentation we all returned to the table to hear from the MBC consultant. It was my impression that he did raise some legitimate concerns about the Skagit County hydrology. However, when Mr. Thomas and I discussed the Stewart presentation I stated to him that with all due respect to Mr. Thomas (who I hold in the highest esteem, although he is a former USGS 30 year employee and works for a company that receives multi-million dollar contracts from the FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, he is truly a gentleman and a professional) I felt that he had made the same mistake that FEMA, Corps and USGS hydrologist have made. That being that they all have assumed that Stewart got the intensity of the flood events in the right order. As I showed him, based on the evidence, that is highly questionable at best, and certainly not supported by any tangible reading of the documentation presented.
Mr. Thomas stated that he too had some concerns about the accuracy of the Stewart data based on the three floods (1897, 1909 and 1917) being determined at some point “approximately one mile upstream” (NOTE: we now know that the measurements were taken 2½ to 4 miles upstream and the reason this is important is even with today's modern methods, no hydrologist or even a highly competent engineer could transfer observed flood heights 2½ to 4 miles upstream to a location downstream to within one tenth of a foot, let alone "estimated" heights of non-observed flood events) and not being proven by anyone at any of the agencies, but he did not analyze it in his report. When I asked him why after I was promised by FEMA Region X employees as well as him, that he was to do exactly that he replied, “I was told not to.” By whom I asked? He replied, “FEMA”. I then asked him what it was going to take to get him to evaluate the Stewart data. He replied, “The man sitting next to you has to tell me to do that.” That man was the FEMA Region X representative. Based on what I had just heard him tell Representative Larson’s legislative liaison I then turned to him and said, “And you’re not going to tell him to do a damn thing are you?” To which he replied, “No.” So much for the independent review. FEMA Region X had lied to us.
You might think the story would end here, but no, there’s more. As late as September 14, 2006, the same person from FEMA Region X attended a meeting of the Skagit River Impact Partnership of which I was in attendance. After viewing yet another presentation on why the Stewart figures are highly controversial on their best day, the FEMA Region X employee again promised an “independent review” of the Stewart data. He promised once again to send my research, which by this time had extensively been updated with additional research and republished July 11, 2006, (See James E. Stewart Skagit River Flood Reports And Assorted Documents: A Citizen Critical Review Whitepaper, Updated and Republished) to the MBC consultant to be analyzed for purposes of the FIS. However, one month later the FEMA Region X representative sent a letter to the Mayor of Mt. Vernon, the chairman of the SRIP exclaiming that FEMA was not going to do any further reviews. (See FEMA letter to Skagit River Impact Partnership) He even had the audacity to include in his letter “It is this agency’s responsibility to accurately map the flood risk and provide maps for insurance rating purposes.” It’s a shame and a terrible disservice to the American taxpayer that by using highly questionable data their final work product is anything but accurate. Once again FEMA Region X had lied to the people of Skagit County. When confronted with the lie, the FEMA Region X employee replied, “We didn’t lie, we simply misled you.” To which I replied, what the hell is the difference. In a statement reported in a recent national newspaper it was stated that “If Corporate America misleads people the government cracks down on them. When the Government misleads the people, no one slaps their hands.” I feel very strongly that we need to start firing these kind of employees for they give their agencies and all the dedicated public servants who work for them a really bad name and is one of the many reasons no one trust the government any longer to do anything.
There is a saying in the legal community that if you want truth, justice and the American Way, follow the money, because it’s always about the money. Based on the statements contained herein I am absolutely convinced that it has been FEMA Region X that has been manipulating the Skagit hydrology issue for the past 5 years. They have at every turn conspired with other government agencies to deny Skagit County its opportunity for an independent review of their concerns. This isn’t about science, it’s certainly not about accuracy, and has no relationship with local history. It’s about the money that FEMA has spent with the Seattle District Corps of Engineers, the MBC and deadlines they have to meet. The end result has been that now nothing FEMA Region X, the Seattle District Corps of Engineers, the Tacoma office of USGS, FERC, or the BPA has to say about managing the Skagit River flood issue has an ounce of creditability. It’s really a shame because so many dedicated public employees work at those agencies but when you use lies and deceit, not to mention data that is acceptable to within + or – 20 to 25%, no one is going to believe you. When you purposely “mislead” the American public and its Senators and Congressman you have lost all creditability. Congratulations FEMA Region X for turning what once was your strongest supporter into an Angry Citizen. (See FEMA -- The Total Failure Package)