Guest: A new way to tame rivers is better for humans and salmon
The city of Orting has found a new way to protect itself from flooding from the Puyallup River and learned how it could also enhance salmon habitat and open space.
Special to The Times
WHEN the rain-swollen waters of the Puyallup River rose rapidly this winter, the town of Orting braced itself for flooding.
In 2006, and again in 2009, the river topped its levees and sent people fleeing from homes, businesses and schools in cities all the way to the Port of Tacoma. But this time, something different happened.
The river found new man-made channels created when the old levees were torn out and replaced with new earthen berms set farther back. The river had room to spread out, slow down, and it stayed within the levees, leaving Orting safe and dry.
Taming Western Washington rivers such as the Puyallup is not easy nor cheap, but new management strategies can save millions of dollars in property losses and damage, create critical salmon habitat and add valuable public open space.
This session, the Legislature is considering investing $50 million in a program called Floodplains by Design, which reduces the risk of flooding and costly cleanups, while giving something back to nature in new habitat.
In Orting, we have proof this concept works.
When the 2006 floodwaters receded, it was clear to then-Mayor Cheryl Temple that Orting must mitigate future flooding. Western Washington rivers are experiencing more frequent and severe flooding as more precipitation falls as rain rather than being held in snowpack.
The city began to explore the idea of widening the river channel. At the same time, there was growing interest in salmon recovery, improving water quality and enhancing outdoor recreation.
We learned of the benefits of this new Floodplains by Design approach, spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy. By improving river and water management infrastructure, we found we could reduce the risk of flooding and work with, rather than against, nature. And we could create benefits for people and salmon.
The solution would not be cheap. How could a small town like Orting, with an annual budget of about $3 million, afford a multimillion-dollar project? With the future at stake, Ken Wolfe, our building official and project manager of the Calistoga Levee Setback, pursued every option. I’m proud of our residents who agreed to increase their own stormwater fees to pay about $2.5 million of the project cost.
In a six-year process, Orting became known as “The Little Town That Could.” The fact that this work would have multiple positive outcomes and benefit downstream communities became critical to obtaining funding.
We secured funds from the state Department of Ecology, the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and $8.8 million from the Pierce County Flood Control District. The Legislature added $5.7 million through the Floodplains by Design initiative.
We broke ground on the $17 million project in March 2014. On Nov. 25, the new infrastructure was tested as the Puyallup rose to the same flow that flooded our town in 2009. But this time, the new levee held. It was tested again in December and in January. It worked.
The benefits to people are obvious and immediate: safety, community well-being, economic security.
Salmon also are taking advantage of their new 101 acres of habitat. The wider channel provides opportunities for the river to meander and create complex habitat, with refuge for juvenile salmon in channels with lower velocity during peak flows.
Birds and other animals enjoy the new wetlands, and people are taking advantage of new trails. While this project may not remove the risk of all future flooding, it is vastly improving our quality of life.
The Department of Ecology, Puget Sound Partnership and The Nature Conservancy are rapidly making Floodplains by Design a model program, and have drawn support and project proposals from across the state. A coalition of advocates is asking the Legislature to fund this program at $50 million. Communities such as Snoqualmie, Kent, Puyallup, Yakima and Ellensburg might benefit if it’s funded.
Every major storm potentially puts lives and property at risk. We hope that the Legislature would approve the $50 million request for Floodplains by Design so that other Washington communities can reap the same benefits that Orting now enjoys.
Joachim “Joe” Pestinger is mayor of Orting, Pierce County.