Bigger lessons in the Green River floodplain

'Flood control is an oxymoron,' one expert says. Maybe, instead of spending so much money trying to control our rivers, we should buy out property owners and let the water run free.
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Green River Valley: warnings on the flood plain

'Flood control is an oxymoron,' one expert says. Maybe, instead of spending so much money trying to control our rivers, we should buy out property owners and let the water run free.

Nobody's building an ark yet, but 20,000 people in South King County may be displaced if the Green River floods this winter, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler wrote the state's property insurers last Friday. And what people don't know may hurt them: 'ꀜMany insurance consumers mistakenly believe that homeowners insurance covers flooding,'ꀝ Kreidler said. 'ꀜRecognizing this, the 2009 Legislature passed a law requiring insurers to annually remind their homeowners insurance customers that their policy doesn'ꀙt cover flooding, and to provide information on the National Flood Insurance Program.'ꀝ However, he noted, "flood insurance doesn'ꀙt become effective until 30 days after a policy is written, and the flood season begins on Nov. 1. ... I ask that you take extraordinary measures to contact all of your customers in the Green River floodplain and suggest that, if they haven'ꀙt done so already, they contact the National Flood Insurance Program immediately to purchase flood insurance.'ꀝ

Getting flood insurance through the private sector may be just about impossible. Craig Welch reported in Tuesday's Seattle Times about a Seattle insurance insurance broker who received notice a couple of weeks ago, 'ꀜon the same day that Gov. Chris Gregoire urged homeowners and businesses along the Green River to buy flood insurance," that his broker at Lloyd's of London was concerned about Green River flooding. "Within a week," the Times story said, "the worldwide market for private flood insurance in and around Kent, Auburn and Tukwila had dried up. ... By advertising the risks of flooding to protect the safety of area residents, public officials effectively helped kill one of the insurance markets they encouraged citizens to turn to.'ꀝ

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Howard Hanson Dam, doesn't worry — or claims not to worry — that the dam will fail, but in order to reduce pressure on the structure, the Corps won't hold back as much water this winter as it usually would. This means that under flood conditions, the Green River may overtop its levees and inundate a good deal of its historic floodplain, which has been heavily developed since the dam started controlling the river on Christmas 1961.

The City of Auburn's website advises 'ꀜrenters, homeowners, and businesses ... to review their insurance policies to ensure they are covered for flooding, landslides, sinkholes, and other issues commonly associated with significant rain events.'ꀝ  Lots of luck.

And Auburn isn't alone. 'ꀜKent, Renton, Auburn, Tukwila and King County are urging thousands of residents and businesses to buy flood insurance and prepare for possible evacuation this winter,'ꀝ Keith Ervin reported in the Seattle Times. 'ꀜCounty Executive Kurt Triplett said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has suggested that local authorities plan not just for a possible overtopping of the levees but also for the more serious possibility they will be breached. In that event, he said, 'You're talking about water that's rocketing down the valley at the highest levels you've ever seen.''ꀝ

County government is among the many property owners checking their life preservers. Last month, the County Council was briefed on plans to shift the operation of major county facilities from the heart of the flood plain, 'ꀜincluding the potential need to relocate animals from the Animal Shelter, inmates from the Maleng Regional Justice Center, and move the County'ꀙs Elections headquarters," according to a presentation by Assistant County Executive Pam Bissonette.

She presented projected high-water marks for several of those facilities:

  • Aukeen District Court — up to a foot
  • Animal Care and Control Shelter in Kent — up to 3 feet
  • Maleng Regional Justice Center — up to 4 feet
  • Black River Building — up to 7 feet
  • Earlington Center (King County Elections) — up to 10 feet.

The Times quoted Bissonette saying FEMA has estimated the potential property damages to homes and businesses in the floodplain at $2 billion to $3 billion.

Inevitably, the situation has been politicized. 'ꀜWe are facing an economic and environmental disaster that could result in billions of dollars in losses,'ꀝ King County executive candidate Susan Hutchison said in a press release. 'ꀜThis is not a pastoral region where flooding means cows can'ꀙt graze for a few weeks. This flooding could shut down the second largest warehouse and distribution center on the West Coast.

And guess where she laid the blame. 'ꀜThe levies have been deteriorating for years but it is well documented that when Council members tried to establish the critical Flood District tax to raise funds for levy repairs, Council Chair Dow Constantine used it as a bargaining chip to get his unnecessary and costly Ferry District tax. This politicizing of such an important safety and economic need is one of the reasons the county faces this crisis today.'ꀝ

Well, no. But Hutchison is right about one thing: Flooding would affect much more than cows.  The Howard Hanson Dam provides a classic example of the way government has subsidized construction in floodplains. Build it and they will come. The Green, like other rivers flowing into Puget Sound, tended to spend a lot of time outside its banks. Before the dam, for the first century or so of non-native settlement, the valley was agricultural. Flooding was an annoyance to the people who farmed there, and it discouraged most land uses except agriculture. But it wasn't all bad. 'ꀜAnnual floods of the Green and White rivers contributed to the agricultural fertility of the Kent valley,'ꀝ the Kent city website explains. However, then 'ꀜthe Howard Hanson Dam was completed at Eagle Gorge on the upper Green River, taming most of the flooding. This enabled industrial development to take place on the valley floor, leading to Kent's rapid rise as a major distribution center.'ꀝ

To borrow a phrase from the banking crisis, the valley has become too big to fail. 'ꀜThe construction of the dam by the federal government ... allowed the extensive commercial development of the Kent Valley,'ꀝ Phillips said last month, concluding that therefore, 'ꀜWe need the federal government to step up in not only acting to protect public safety and property, but to put a permanent fix in place immediately.'ꀝ

Somebody will have to step in. No one suggests we should just sit back and let floodwaters sweep away the house and family dog, to say nothing of the kids. We'll try to protect those people, whether they should have built there or not.

And arguably, they shouldn't have. Everyone who has given any serious thought to saving the salmon or the Sound realizes that floodplains are crucial. The Puget Sound Partnership's Action Agenda makes a point of this. University of Washington geologist David Montgomery, author of King of Fish, argues that the floodplains were historically and could still be the region's great salmon factories. And, because many of them remain relatively undeveloped, they offer an opportunity to save habitat — not exactly on the cheap, but more cost-effectively than, say, trying to unring the bell of urbanization in metropolitan Seattle or Tacoma. Montgomery argues for buying up lightly developed areas in the floodplains, and letting the rivers flood them again as nature intended. We could create a network of productive habitat and public open space. We could stop subsidizing the destruction of habitat.

The Puget Sound region is already the focus of litigation that may force federal agencies to change the ways they deal with floodplains. In 2004, U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly told FEMA that it must consult NOAA Fisheries about the impact that its National Flood Insurance Program has on Puget Sound chinook and other fish populations listed under the Endangered Species Act.

FEMA has done so, and last September, NOAA Fisheries issued a Biological Opinion that FEMA's flood insurance program would, indeed, jeopardize the survival and recovery of Puget Sound chinook and steelhead, Hood Canal summer chum, and the Southern Resident Killer Whales that eat chinook. NOAA proposed a 'ꀜreasonable and prudent alternative.'ꀝ FEMA is coming up with its own alternative. Stay tuned.

'ꀜSlowly but surely ... haltingly perhaps,'ꀝ says Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, FEMA has laid out steps somewhat different from those proposed in the biological opinion that 'ꀜwith good faith and rigorous implementation'ꀝ may achieve the same ends. 'ꀜWe are willing to wait and see what happens and take them at their word,'ꀝ Hasselman says, but 'ꀜwe will be watching very closely.'ꀝ

By this time, FEMA's insurance problem is bigger than Puget Sound. 'ꀜFEMA has a national-level problem,'ꀝ Hasselman says. Indeed, 'ꀜthe significance of [NOAA's Reasonable and Prudent Alternative for the National Flood Insurance Program] can hardly be overstated,'ꀝ Robert C. Horton wrote this year for the American Bar Association. Zilly's 2004 ruling against FEMA and last year's 11th Circuit ruling in the Florida Key Deer case 'ꀜcan be used to argue that FEMA must undertake [ESA] consultation anywhere that flood-prone lands are designated critical habitat, and anywhere that development in flood-prone areas may affect listed species.'ꀝ

The Corps has a Puget Sound floodplain problem too. In February, American Rivers sent the Corp a 60-day notice of intent to sue over its policy about vegetation on the levees that keep the Green and other Western Washington rivers in their channels. If you want federal money for routine levee repair or for levee emergencies, your levee can't have trees more than 2 to 4 inches in diameter growing from it. Larger trees allegedly threaten the strength of the levee. But without the shade cast by larger trees, the water can get too warm for salmon. American Rivers argued that the Endangered Species Act required the Corps to consult over this policy's impact on chinook, chum and steelhead.

'ꀜThe issue arose in January 2007 on King County'ꀙs Snoqualmie, Green, Cedar, Raging and Tolt rivers,'ꀝ American Rivers said in a press release. 'ꀜThe Corps informed the county that in order to remain eligible for funding, the county would have to comply with Corps standards, which meant removing hundreds of stream-side trees. King County has resisted the Corps'ꀙ demands, stating that removal of stream-side vegetation is inconsistent with numerous salmon recovery plans and projects, and that the vegetation actually strengthens the levees.'ꀝ

'ꀜThe Corps is enforcing a vegetation-management policy for levees that dates from the '30s," says Michael Garrity, Washington State conservation director of American Rivers. 'ꀜThe Corps should update its policies.'ꀝ

The day before the notice period ran out, the Corps initiated a consultation with NOAA Fisheries. American Rivers hasn't yet decided what to do. For the time being, Garrity says, 'ꀜwe're kind of sitting back and seeing how it develops.'ꀝ But American Rivers hasn't taken litigation off the table.

This is another issue with ramifications beyond the Puget Sound basin. 'ꀜIt an issue in a lot of river basins,'ꀝ Garrity says. 'ꀜI've had communications from throughout the Northwest and throughout the country.'ꀝ

Montgomery notes in King of Fish that in the early 1960s, when the Howard Hanson Dam was built, some people realized that buying out property owners could be cheaper than holding back floods. An engineer reported in 1964 that 'ꀜthe flood control funds dispersed on the Cedar River in recent years would have covered acquisition costs of all lands along the river several times over.'ꀝ

Not that Montgomery thinks there's an alternative to fixing the Howard Hanson Dam. Neither does Hasselman, who acknowledges that it's 'ꀜa genuine public emergency.'ꀝ However, fixing the dam doesn't mean we should keep building and reinforcing levees all over the map — especially in light of what climate change will probably bring to the river valleys. Climate-change modeling suggests that we should expect more floods more often. 'ꀜWe're just on a collision course'ꀝ on climate Hasselman says. Counties can keep paying more and more to keep the levees intact. Or, 'ꀜit may in the long run be cheaper to look at relocating some kinds of property.'ꀝ

Montgomery suggests that the current crisis in the Green River valley could become a teaching moment — less about the Green River, where there don't seem to be a whole lot of good choices, than about other rivers, where the future of the flood plains is still in play.

'ꀜ'Flood control' is an oxymoron,'ꀝ says Montgomery. 'ꀜFloodplains do flood. Someday, somebody gets stuck with the bill.'ꀝ

Do we care? Could we take some of the dollars we would otherwise spend on flood control and use them to buy out property owners whom we would otherwise pay to protect? Would that be cheaper than endlessly reinforcing levees and fixing dams? Would it be cheaper or more effective than other things we're doing to save Puget Sound? The questions aren't new, and they don't have simple answers. But these days, although we talk a good game about saving the salmon and the Sound, you don't hear many people asking.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.