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2006 Historical Quotes of the Month

Table of Contents



James E. Stewart

 Come hell or high water, USGS seems determined to stick with the work of an engineer named James Stewart, who 85 years ago drew his conclusions by measuring various high water marks along the Skagit River supposedly left by floods in 1897, 1909, 1917 and 1921. The agency refuses to seriously consider any contradictory data, despite the fact that the river and the methods available for analyzing its behavior have changed dramatically in nine decades. . . .

 The USGS position that the 85-year-old Stewart report is flawless and not subject to modification is not only unreasonable, it is bureaucratic obstinance at its worst. If that continues, we can only hope to prevail upon our congressional delegation to press the agency to explain itself more satisfactorily than it has to date.  (Source:  Skagit Valley Herald, Friday, December 8, 2006)

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The November floods in 1989 and 1990 make it very clear many Skagit County residents live in harms way. People along the Sauk River, in Hamilton, Cape Horn, Thunderbird, Shangri-La, Cockerham Island, and Fir island know that all too well. Many others in the lower valley who are "protected" by dikes may become complacent that their homes and businesses are safe. However, dike failures at Fir Island are a drastic reminder that being safe may not be possible on the Skagit River flood-plain.

Yet, people continue to be allowed to build subdivisions, and shopping malls. Local governments control development, and the decision is clear in their mind that perceived benefits to the local economy outweigh the risks incurred in further building in the floodplain. As you discuss in your book, when, not if, the river breaks through upstream of Burlington, there will be damage which will make that which was suffered in the last two years seem small in comparison.  (Source: Letter from Director Joseph R. Blum to Larry Kunzler, July 1, 1991)

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Big Flood Inundates Skagit Valley

The flood waters on Fairhaven Avenue had disappeared on Wednesday morning.  The east Fairhaven district suffered loss in property as it was directly in the path of two currents caused when the river dikes gave way east and southeast of Burlington.  Could a dike have been built on the slough (Gages) south of Burlington paralleling the town from east to west the flood waters could have been controlled and the town safe-guarded from flood waters.  (Source:  Burlington Journal, Friday, December 16, 1921)

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Highest Water In Many Years – Skagit River Goes On Big Rampage; All Bridges are Damaged and Dikes Broken in a Number of Places Along the River

These floods are fraught with no great danger and throughout the country where the dikes gave way there has been no loss of life and but little damage to property and the farmers are not at all discouraged or alarmed about the future. The dikes in the main remained secure and when the damaged dikes are repaired they will be made sufficiently strong to withstand all future floods. Any home seeker or investor when contemplating coming to Skagit Valley should not hesitate to do so for in truth these floods are of no great consequence except what damage is done to bridges. They really benefit the land, but there is no doubt but in future years the dikes will be so strengthen as to withstand these floods and the country back of them will always remain dry.  (Source: 11/19/06 TSN-H)

things to be done (Editorial)


After all, it might have been far worse.  No irretrievable damage has been done.  The thing to be done now is to clean up, begin the work of repair, and proceed as though nothing had happened.  Skagit county has a glorious future and not even extraordinary misfortune can set it back for any length of time.  The weak-kneed brothers will move out; those made of sterner stuff will stay and reap the rewards of grit and energy.  It is no time for calamity howlers, and they should not be tolerated.  Let them go their way; their places will be filled by better men.  No expense should be spared to put the roads and bridges in as good and better condition than they were in, before the freshet.  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.  (The above editorial appeared in the Dec. 4, 1909 issue of “The Herald-Recorder,” Skagit county’s official paper published at Hamilton, the week of the “big flood”.)  (Source 12/1/49 CT)

Commentary:  Perhaps the editorial was prompted by the fact that several homes in Hamilton did not have water in them in 1909.  The flows of 1906 and 1909 have been estimated by USGS to have carried 180,000 cfs and 260,000 cfs respectively.

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flood of November 1897

“The flood elevations in Concrete probably were affected to a considerable extent by the flow of Baker River.  The relationship between the two floods (1897 and 1909) at that point may have been quite different from the relationship at the gauging station site.”  (Source: 1961 WSP 1527 Stewart/Bodhaine Report § "Flood of November 1897", Page 28)

Note: See also pages 51-55 and 65-68 of the James E. Stewart Skagit River Flood Reports And Assorted Documents:  A Citizen Critical Review Whitepaper, Updated and Republished .

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JULY 2006


report of engineer gives a history of Skagit river flood

“Since the arrival of the first white people about 1869,” says Mr. Stewart, “there have been six Skagit river floods whose discharge has exceeded 175,000 second feet at Sedro-Woolley.  All of these floods have occurred since Nov. 15, 1896.  The number of floods that exceeded 175,000 second-feet at Sedro-Woolley prior to 1869 is unknown, but the occurrence of two great floods has been discovered.  The exact dates of these early floods are not known, but their stages and volumes have been accurately determined.  . . .  The data shows that the floods of 1921 was the second largest since 1856, in Sedro-Woolley, the 1909 flood reaching 26.5 feet on the gage and 1921 flood, 24.3 feet.  . . .  In the light of knowledge of past floods it seems likely, says Mr. Stewart that floods like those of 1917 and 1921 may occur within the next five or six years.”  (Source: 12/20/23 CT)

Note:  I feel very strongly that based on research contained in the Stewart Whitepaper updated and republished this month that the 1897, 1909, 1917, and 1921 floods were very much comparable to the 1990, 1995 and 2003 flood events.  The Corps of Engineers has determined that the unregulated (i.e. no dams) flows for Concrete and Sedro-Woolley were as follows:

Year                 Concrete           Sedro-Woolley

1990                 195,000 cfs       195,000 cfs

1995                 182,000 cfs       186,000 cfs

2003                 209,000 cfs       202,000 cfs

 Source:  Corps of Engineers e-mail 7/10/2006

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JUNE 2006



A like contribution to Skagit valley flood protection was made by Puget Sound Power and Light company with its two dams on the Baker river, one in use this winter for the first time. Division Mgr. John Wallen in Bellingham reported to Mt. Vernon Mgr. Loft that Puget also began holding hack water early last Thursday and stored 27,000 acre feet of water that ordinarily would have gone on downstream. It closed gates to raise the level at Upper Baker by 5 ½ feet and at the old Lower Baker dam at Concrete, another foot. By terms of the federal power commission license, the company is not required to use the Baker dams for flood control but was glad to be able to do so, Wallin said.  (Source: 11/26/59 Argus)

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MAY 2006



Almost universal housecleaning has been the rule in Hamilton this week.  Only a few houses in the main part of town escaped the muddy waters of the flood, which reached its highest point about midnight Monday.  At one o’clock Tuesday morning the waters began to recede, and by nine o’clock all houses except a few on the exceptionally low ground were clear of water, but the mud remained.  …  Old residents here tell of three former big floods in the history of the town, in 1897, 1909, and 1917, and it is said that this flood was one of the highest, though probably not quite as high as that of 1897.  …  The Van Horn Shingle Company at Van Horn lost heavily.  The shingle sheds were ruined, the filing room of the mill was carried away, and two dry kilns collapsed and the shingles which they contained floated away on the flood.  Residents of the houses by the mill, including Mr. And Mrs. W.A. Ellison, took refuge in the mill, putting a stove in the filing room, stove and all, but the main part of the mill remained standing.  Mr. Ellison telephoned to Hamilton every hour, giving reports on the rise of the water until the telephone line to his station across the river went out, then Mr. Shields reported from the Van Horn side of the river until the water rose to the telephone and it had to be taken from the wall.  These reports enabled the Hamilton people to estimate the rise here and to prepare for it.  (Source: 12/24/21 C.H.)

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APRIL 2006


   The control of the Skagit River during flood periods is a serious engineering problem, a huge task, however that is possible, and one that should attract the immediate attention of every civic community from Sauk to the sea.  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.  (Source:  January 4, 1918 Burlington Journal)

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MARCH 2006


That the people of the county should take the burden of providing adequate protection on their own shoulders, was the opinion of H.L. Willis, who cited the accomplishment of the city of Gaveston [Galveston, TX], which built its mammoth sea wall by bonding its own citizens without any outside assistance.  He urged the adoption of organized effort as soon as possible and concluded with, “Let’s do the job ourselves.”  (Permanent Organization To Be Formed “To Improve Skagit River.” 1/5/22  Argus )

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For many years we have been an active booster for all types of development in the upper valley.  New roads, new bridges, better stores, bigger industries.  In these the valley has made some strides and from indications is continually growing toward that goal of the early dreamers – full development of all the various resources.  Yet is all this exactly what we want?  Sometimes we have our doubts.  With progress comes a number of disadvantages.  Roads that make it easy for us to reach a favorite fishing spot also bring a hundred other guys who have more time to fish it out.  We find our scenic spots being cluttered with beer cans, our peaceful hideaways filled with sometimes unappreciative strangers.  A usual leisurely way of life is being speeded up by urgency of progress.  The restlessness of the pioneer is easily understandable – find, build, welcome the newcomers and then realize that what you have sought is lost through your own enthusiasm.  Therein lies the charm of the phrase, “the good old days.”  We liked it as it was, didn’t we?  And so we move along, reluctant, to that next bit of promotion.  Where to from here?  (Source:  Charles M. Dwelley, Concrete Herald Editor & Publisher 7/24/52 C.H.)

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 In 1924, Colonel Barden of the Corps of Engineers held a public hearing in Skagit County to discuss the future of flood control in Skagit County.  At that public hearing, one year after the submission of the Stewart Report in October 1923 Colonel Barden stated the following:

I would like to emphasize the point that Mr. Knapp (County Engineer) brought out in his paper, that before any really scientific plan can be prepared for the protection of this valley from floods, it is necessary to have more authoritative information then we now have as to the amount of water carried by the river in time of floods.  . . . The information that was collected by Mr. Stewart and given in his report to the committee was excellent so far as the data that he had to work upon permitted, but that data was necessarily more or less inaccurate.  (Source: Notice and Minutes of Public Hearing, 1924)

           In 1952 following the 1951 flood the Corps of Engineers authored a report that was never made public.  Excerpts concerning the Stewart Report are as follows:

At the time Mr. Stewart made his report no gaging station had been established on Skagit River at The Dalles, near Concrete.  His estimate of 240,000 cfs for the crest discharge at this site is a mean of four calculated discharges, one made by contracted opening method and three by slope section.  The 1917 and 1909 discharges were estimated by comparison of stage heights with that of the 1921 flood.  Determination of gage heights of early floods was made from high-water marks.  Mr. Stewart estimates the discharge of the discharge of the December 1921 flood to have an accuracy within 5 percent; the 1917, 1909, 1856, and 1815 floods, 10 percent; and the 1897 flood, 20 percent at The Dalles.  These values are also subject to question because of uncertainty of high-water marks, changing channel conditions tending to alter the rating curves such as clearing the bottom valley lands, erosion and deposition, and excessive extension of rating curves. (Emphasis added)  (Appendix to Report on Survey for Flood Control of Skagit River and Tributaries, Corps of Engineers, 2/21/52, Not For Public Release, Page 17 ¶31)

Flood records are available in the basin since 1908 but they are not continuous at any single site for the entire period.  As described previously, estimates have been made of crest discharges for historical floods occurring in 1815, 1856, 1897, and 1906.  However, it was felt that the use of these flood peaks not in a continuous series and of questionable accuracy would decrease the over-all accuracy of the frequency curve, and so they were omitted from the study.  (Appendix to Report on Survey for Flood Control of Skagit River and Tributaries, Corps of Engineers, 2/21/52, Not For Public Release, Page 17 ¶33)  (See James E. Stewart Skagit River Flood Reports And Assorted Documents: A Citizen Critical Review Whitepaper .  See also Whitepaper Appendix E, and Letter to FEMA from Larry Kunzler re: Skagit Hydrology Study)


Commentary:  Mr. Stewarts Report was rejected in 1924 and again in 1952.  Why are we still using it 2006?

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