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Originally published February 13, 2009 at 2:57 PM | Page modified February 13, 2009 at 3:37 PM

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Guest columnists

Shrewder planning needed to avoid flood devastation

The increases in major Western Washington flooding events demonstrates the importance of shrewder planning in development as Puget Sound population continues to grow. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn and Cascade Lands Conservancy President Gene Duvernoy argue that development must be shifted into cities and towns through such innovative ideas as transfer of development rights and conservation villages that change the way rural lands are used.

Special to The Times

AS yet another flood recedes in Western Washington, it is time to recognize a fact of life. We need to continue upgrading our levees and flood protection facilities and change how we use the land, or we will have devastating 100-year flood events every year.

Changing weather patterns no doubt contribute to the "annual" 100-year storm phenomenon, but the real culprit is the lack of control on upstream growth and antiquated flood-control systems. Extreme and changing weather patterns will be a fact of life, but we must take steps now to make certain the situation does not get any worse.

What's happening? Imagine a big spill in your kitchen that you mop up with a sponge. You then wring out the sponge, and a lot of liquid comes out someplace else. That's what happens when forests and farmlands are converted to other uses. Even longtime residents of the region were struck by the amount of water flowing over Snoqualmie Falls during the recent floods as nature wrung out that sponge.

And land is being converted. Washington is losing nonfederal forestland at an average rate of 17,500 acres per year, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Other experts peg the loss even higher. That's an area one-third the size of Seattle that is being converted every year.

Likewise, most of the 500 or so flood-protection facilities in King County were built in the early 1960s. They were not built to current standards, and many are now reaching the end of their useful lives. Up to $345 million in repairs and upgrades are needed on the levees. Flood-protection infrastructure needs to be strengthened to protect lives, homes and businesses that are crucial to our regional economy. Floods affect everyone, posing risks to public safety, and to regionally important employment centers and transportation corridors.

Two key programs are already under way — one with crucial government leadership, the other with smart market-based tools to change the way land is used.

On the government side, King County created the King County Flood Control District two years ago to provide additional funding and oversight to accelerate flood-protection projects.

Last year, the flood-control district completed 24 projects, including upgrades to aging levees that provided an added measure of protection during the recent storm. The county's flood-control plan also includes strategies for reducing public health and safety risks to people living in flood-hazard areas, such as:

• The voluntary sale of flood-prone properties and structures to the flood-control district. Home buyouts provide a permanent solution to property damage caused by repetitive flooding or slides, and also open up land in public ownership to channel floodwaters.

• A program to elevate homes in flood-prone areas, assisting property owners with the costs of raising the finished floor of a home above the 100-year flood elevation, substantially reducing the threat of future damage.

Practical solutions such as buying up land are one thing, but the economic and environmental travesty of a flood is quite another. The economic cost is staggering — in dollars, in lost time and productivity and in reputation. The estimate of damage from recent flooding on bridges, highways and roads alone is more than $125 million. The cost of lost productivity is hard to measure, but it is substantial.

This region works hard to retain the world-class companies and workers who come here for the quality of life. Regular flooding is not going to do much for the region's reputation, especially if the Seattle area regularly gets all but closed off — as happened when both I-90 and I-5 were shut down.

Unfortunately, the horse is somewhat out of the barn on land use. The region already has too many places where forests and floodplains have been converted to other uses. Expensive retrofitting of drainage systems seems the only choice there.

But we do have a choice in not making the situation any worse. We must shift development into cities and towns through such innovative ideas as transfer of development rights and conservation villages that change the way rural lands are used. These programs encourage more growth in cities and towns while not disenfranchising land owners in rural and resources land areas.

Looking out over 100 years, we realize that land use plays a critical role in the quality of life for our region. This is clearly evident in the recent flooding events.

It isn't a question of if there will be another major flooding event, but when it will occur. The region must move quickly to make the fundamental changes needed and to take actions to reduce the risk and impact of floods. If we don't, the "annual" 100-year flood may become a reality.

Reagan Dunn, left, is a member of the Metropolitan King County Council and chair of the King County Flood Control District Executive Committee. Gene Duvernoy is president of the Cascade Land Conservancy.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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