— Updated 9/10 to correct Forterra's involvement in the project.
HAMILTON — After enduring more than a century of flooding, the town of Hamilton is pursuing a vision of a town with drier buildings.
The town, in partnership with the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group and the Skagit Land Trust, is asking the state for $1.5 million from the Floodplains by Design grant program to support its relocation to higher ground away from the Skagit River.
“Over the long term, this project will assure continuation of the Town of Hamilton as a vibrant, resilient and sustainable community outside of the floodplain,” the grant application states.
The Hamilton Floodplain Planning, Acquisition and Restoration Project outlined in the grant application is a multipart, long-term vision to move willing residents out of flood-prone areas and allow vacated properties to be used to benefit the region’s wildlife.
“It gets people out of harm’s way from frequently flooded areas, helps the town meet its open space goals ... and helps make improvements for habitat,” Skagit Land Trust Land Specialist Jane Zillig said during a June 19 meeting in Hamilton.
Flooding in Hamilton has been recognized as a problem since shortly after the town was founded in 1877 and has occurred on average every 3.4 years, according to the grant application.
The town is threatened by the Skagit River along its southern border and by Carey’s Slough, which cuts through the town beneath several roads before it drains into the river.
Poor drainage from Carey’s Slough allows water to back up into the slough and threaten the town with flooding when the Skagit River reaches 21 feet at Concrete — several feet below the river’s flood stage of 28 feet, according to recent modeling.
When the river exceeds 33.27 feet in Concrete, it too overflows into Hamilton.
This happened in November 2017, when flooding caused about $15,000 in infrastructure damage, $10,000 in environmental cleanup and an unknown number of insurance claims, according to the town.
According to a 2006 New York Times article, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had by that time spent about $10 million on flood recovery in Hamilton.
THE VISION FOR HAMILTON
The possibility of moving the town of Hamilton north of Highway 20 has been discussed among local leaders for several decades, and Hamilton Mayor Joan Cromley said her vision is to have the town center and residences south of Highway 20 vacated within the next 100 years.
The town is drafting a comprehensive plan outlining this goal, and is hoping for Floodplains by Design grant money to help get the effort started.
Floodplains by Design combines the goals of reducing flood risk and improving fish habitat in the floodplains of the state’s rivers.
Zillig, who lived in Hamilton in the 1990s, endured flooding herself before moving out of town. She said during flooding in 1995 she used a canoe to rescue her cat.
At a bar in town, Zillig and Cromley reminisced Aug. 29 with residents Don Hawley and Roger Davis about the history of flooding in a town that once had a vibrant business center that included a cheese factory, meat shop and bank.
The high-water marks of the most recent significant floods of 2003 and 2006 are etched on a post inside the bar, which is one of the few remaining businesses in town.
Walking along Maple Street between the bar and Town Hall, Zillig said she could envision that area becoming open, green space in the decades ahead.
When it comes to the town’s vision, Cromley said a major question is what would become of the historic buildings, roadways and other infrastructure currently in the southern portion of the town.
”It’s mind boggling to think of deconstructing a town,” she said.
THE FIRST PHASE
The $1.5 million the town is seeking would be used to complete the first of several phases envisioned by the town, the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group and the Skagit Land Trust.
“This is going to be a long, drawn-out project ... This is not going to be a quick fix,” Cromley said.
The first phase has several goals:
— Develop a plan for helping residents relocate.
— Work with the community to determine what the town should look like after relocations are completed.
— Create a management plan for vacated properties.
— Educate the community about flood risks.
— Acquire high-risk properties in the floodplain.
— Extend modeling of the Skagit River, sloughs and creeks in town to get a better idea of what habitat could look like if residents aren’t in high-risk areas.
— Complete fish passage improvement projects throughout town.
If the state funding comes through, the project partners would be able to use that money between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2021.
The town is the lead for project administration and town planning, the Skagit Land Trust is the lead for property acquisitions and the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group is the lead for restoration efforts, including modeling and on-the-ground work.
The Skagit Land Trust has already purchased six properties in the area — four in town and two near Mud Creek — from property owners who had grown tired of flooding.
The land trust is working to buy at least 14 other properties, including one home, if the Floodplains by Design funding is awarded.
Money already in hand from the state Salmon Recovery Funding Board and money from the Floodplains by Design program would give the trust two ways to pay fair market value for properties in the floodplain and to provide assistance to relocate tenants from rental properties.
“Every flood, you’re going to have somebody who’s going to say ‘That’s it, I’m done, I’ve had enough,’” Zillig said.
The town and the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group have also been working for several years to improve fish habitat and floodwater drainage in Carey’s Slough.
They received funding earlier this year to design a project to replace three undersized culverts under Pettit Street and Lyman-Hamilton Highway.
Replacing those culverts will allow floodwater to drain out of town more quickly while also improving access to Carey’s Slough for fish, including threatened chinook salmon and steelhead, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group Restoration Ecologist Sue Madsen said.
Poor drainage through culverts along Carey’s Slough holds floodwater in town for days, increasing the damage to infrastructure and farms.
“It’s a series of bathtubs,” Cromley said. “If we could restore the slough to its natural processes, it could help a lot of issues and benefit salmon.”
The town is working on another partnership to support development north of Highway 20.
Cromley said the nonprofit land conservancy Forterra is considering purchasing a 43-acre property in Hamilton’s Urban Growth Area, as well as bringing in expertise in sustainable development to help create a plan for the property.
Forterra’s mission is to help build communities throughout the state that are sustainable environmentally, economically and socially.
Over the past 30 years, Forterra has been involved in about 450 projects where it has purchased property to conserve as wetlands, forests and farms, and to build city parks and affordable housing, conservation director Rebecca Bouchey said.
Forterra’s involvement in rebuilding Hamilton on drier ground comes about a year after the 43-acre property and another 64-acre property went on the market and about a decade after the Skagit County Board of Commissioners approved Hamilton’s urban growth and urban reserve areas north of Highway 20, setting the stage in 2008 for the town to get serious about relocating.
FLOODPLAINS BY DESIGN
Floodplains by Design proposals such as Hamilton’s are evaluated on several criteria, including reducing flood risk, increasing salmon habitat, creating recreation opportunities and supporting agriculture, said Bob Carey, director of strategic partnerships for The Nature Conservancy.
The state Department of Ecology is responsible for distributing grant funding, but the program is a partnership between federal, state, tribal and private organizations including The Nature Conservancy.
Since 2013, the state Legislature has approved $115 million for the program, according to the program website.
“I think the situation in Hamilton is ripe for a program like Floodplains by Design because of that intersection of significant flood risk and the potential for significant habitat restoration,” Carey said. “Hamilton is known throughout the state as one of the more frequently flooded towns, and it lies in a reach of the Skagit that is most critical to recovering Puget Sound chinook and therefore prey for endangered orcas.”
Carey said a project done nearly a decade ago in the lower reaches of the Skagit River helped shape the Floodplains by Design concept that could now help reshape Hamilton.
That project was the Fisher Slough dike setback project near Conway, which balanced the needs of fish and farms near the south fork of the Skagit River.