During a major flood of the Skagit River, water would spill over the levees in Mount Vernon and Burlington, and inundate sections of Interstate 5, Highway 20 and Highway 9 — all major traffic routes in Skagit County.
Sewers, wastewater treatment plants and stormwater pumping stations would stop functioning. That could cut off water to Anacortes, La Conner and Oak Harbor.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates 7,000 structures and 37,000 people would be in the path of the floodwaters, and that damages could exceed $1 billion.
The threat of what is termed a “100-year flood” is why the corps and Skagit County have worked since 1993 on the Skagit River General Investigation Study; its goal is to create a plan to minimize the effects of a major flood.
But in April, Skagit County cut off funding for the study after deciding the process had drawn out too long. Over 22 years the county has spent $7.2 million.
What is next for the GI study isn’t clear.
“We are working with Skagit County to determine the project’s future and path forward,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman William “Bill” Dowell said in an email. “At this time we are still in discussions about next steps.”
Skagit County Project Manager Kara Symonds said the money spent on the study wasn’t wasted, as the county can use information already gathered to plan small-scale flood management projects.
And representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency say should a major flood occur, FEMA will be there for the county whether the study goes forward or not.
The county sent an email to the corps on April 21 asking that the remaining money available for the latest part of the study — the feasibility phase — be used to outline how to increase water storage at the Baker River dams.
Symonds said Wednesday the corps has yet to respond.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said in GI reports that existing levees and dam storage provide “a limited level of flood risk management to developed areas that is not acceptable to the local communities.”
So when it comes to the risk of flooding in the Skagit Valley, the county and corps agree: The Skagit River can be unruly and the community needs to be prepared.
Data from the GI study’s draft feasibility report and environmental impact statement says the Skagit River’s last 100-year flood was in 1909. There is a 1 percent chance of a 100-year flood happening in any given year.
With the levees and dam storage as they are on the Skagit River, flooding is estimated to cost the county $40 million annually, according to the draft Skagit River GI feasibility report.
Should the the levee improvement plan the county and the corps have called the “tentatively selected plan” ever become a reality, that cost could be cut in half.
But the feasibility study for that plan is not finished, leaving its completion very much in doubt.
Asking too much, taking too long
In March, the corps asked the county for another year and another $810,000 to finish the feasibility phase of the GI study. The county said no.
Since 1993, $14.5 million has been spent on the study, which remains in the second of five phases. The county and corps have split the cost.
After little progress was made in the first eight years of the study, it was set to be shelved in 2011. The corps and county agreed, however, to take another stab at it.
In June 2012, the two committed to finishing the feasibility report in three years.
But the corps’ request this spring for more time and more money indicated it was not going to make the June 2015 deadline.
The goal of the GI study, which encompasses the Skagit River watershed and floodplain from Seattle City Light’s Ross Dam reservoir to Puget Sound and the upper and lower Baker dams on the Baker River, was to identify a plan to reduce flood risks and to have a project in place to provide flood protection from 2020 to 2070.
Getting that accomplished in five years is unlikely.
First, the feasibility phase would need to be completed. Then the plan would need congressional approval for funding.
Though the GI study hasn’t gone the way the county would have hoped since it first got involved in 1993, that’s not to say some of the information gathered won’t be useful.
Skagit County will use information from the Skagit River GI draft environmental impact statement and feasibility report to update its Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan, Symonds said.
That information also can be used by state agencies. The state Department of Transportation has incorporated Skagit River GI data into its Creating a Resilient Transportation Network in Skagit County study.
The study is the first the Department of Transportation has done. After evaluating what area of the state was most at risk for flood damage, the state agency selected the Skagit River corridor for a pilot project supported with Federal Highway Administration grant money.
The document, released in January, serves as an example of how information from federal flood studies can be used to improve the resiliency of state highways.
Should there be a flood, and if an emergency determination is made, FEMA will be there to help, GI study or no GI study, agency spokeswoman Lucianne Phillips said.
“When there is a disaster of any kind, the local authorities respond first,” she said. “If it’s bigger than what they can handle, then they may ask for county assistance, they may ask for state assistance, and then the state may ask for federal assistance.”
The only way the GI study could affect FEMA’s relationship with the county and area cities is if the study resulted in physical modifications to flood management infrastructure. Those modifications would affect flood insurance rates.
“When the GI is constructed or implemented, it will likely change where flooding may occur and where it may not. Then rates of flood insurance could change because each locale, their premiums are based on flood risks,” Phillips said. “So if the flood risk changes up or down, it could affect insurance rates up or down.
“That’s why your county is working with the Corps of Engineers on how to address flood issues,” she said.
The National Flood Insurance Program is operated through FEMA, but policies are sold in the private market.
According to FEMA records, Skagit County and the cities of Mount Vernon, Burlington, Sedro-Woolley, Anacortes, Concrete, Hamilton and Lyman participate in the insurance program.
In exchange for local efforts to reduce flood risk, policyholders can receive up to a 45 percent discount on flood insurance premiums.
Because the county, Mount Vernon and Burlington have been proactive in flood protection, residents in those areas receive flood insurance discounts. The discounts for those areas are 25, 20 and 30 percent, respectively.
The Skagit River
The Skagit River originates at about 8,000 feet in elevation in the Cascade Mountain Range in British Columbia, according to GI records. It extends 110 miles through Canada, Whatcom County and Skagit County, draining water off 3,115 square miles of land.
The river splits into north and south forks before draining into Puget Sound.
Extensive dikes on the lower river, including some built in the late 1800s, have allowed the Skagit Valley to be farmed and developed.
As the county’s population has increased from 14,272 to 102,979 over the past century, so have the risks to life, infrastructure and property.
The corps has been looking for a flood control solution for the Skagit Valley since 1922.
After passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936, the corps recommended an Avon Bypass project to divert a portion of Skagit River floodwaters between Burlington and Mount Vernon into Padilla Bay, corps spokesman Dowell said.
In 1952, the project was made inactive because local funding and consensus requirements could not be met.
The Skagit River basin is subject to floods caused by rain and snowmelt. The floods most commonly occur between October and March.
The Skagit County website reads:
“If we fail to prepare, we are in trouble. Skagit County has a long history of flooding. In the past 100 years, the Skagit River has exceeded flood stage more than 28 times. In November of 1990 and 1995, rains from warm Pacific storms, coupled with high mountain snowpack turned the region into a federally declared disaster area.”
And those are small floods. A 100-year flood would do much more damage.