Flood measures along White River disrupting Pacific neighborhood

City of Pacific and King County officials are working on ways to improve flood protection along the banks of the volatile White River.

City of Pacific and King County officials are working on ways to improve flood protection along the banks of the volatile White River.

But the county’s mitigation measures have drawn concerns from one flood-prone neighborhood, which will lose 11 homes and consequently expects to see property values drop.

“I want to make sure citizens are protected, but with the property values being dramatically cut, I think they are destroying a neighborhood,” said Pacific Mayor Richard Hildreth. “They’re some upset people in that neighborhood.”

The county purchased the homes in the White River Estates and two nearby vacant lots from willing sellers to allow for construction of a new setback levee where the homes are now located. The widened levee along the west bank of the river will extend upstream to provide flood protection to the community adjacent to Pacific Park.

Some of those homes are vacant now, Hildreth said. Once all residents have moved out, the homes will be removed and salvaged and, in some cases, recycled.

County plans call for the single-family dwellings to be removed before the next flood season, with the properties graded and reseeded. The county will maintain the properties as open space until the permanent setback levee can be constructed, which is expected to be by 2015.

Total cost of the project, including all acquisitions to date, is expected to range between $8-9 million, the county said. Funding is apportioned in the King County Flood Control District’s six-year Capital Improvement Project list, which is reviewed and approved annually.

Expenditures to date for acquisitions were appropriated in 2009 and 2010 by the Flood Control District, and supported with grants from King County Conservation Futures and the King County Parks Expansion Levy.

But Hildreth said those funds should go elsewhere to protect the city from the next potentially damaging flood. The January 2009 flood damaged more than 110 homes and 10 businesses, leaving behind $15 million in losses in its wake.

Hildreth recently met with Deputy King County Executive Fred Jarrett and offered more cost-effective alternatives, such as “scalping” or removing accumulated sediment in the river channel. The sediment has changed the nature of the river bed, reducing the channel’s capacity to carry water, Hildreth warned.

“The county does not seem to have interest in those alternatives and is proceeding with their previous plans,” Hildreth said.

“Although I disagree with them, my main concern still needs to be with the safety of all of our citizens. As such, I need to work with King County to proceed with these plans.”

A recent U.S. Geological Survey study evaluated the sediment conditions along the White and Puyallup rivers and compared the effectiveness of removing sediment from the rivers through dredging or gravel bar “scalping” versus setting back levees and giving the rivers more room to move within the floodplain.

The study concluded that setting back levees was the more effective method for providing long-term flood protection. Sediment removal might provide very short-term relief, but sediment must be continually removed for the benefits to remain, the study said.

Repeated removal can become expensive, and the sediment removed during any maintenance period easily would be replaced by the new sediment from just one flood event, the study said.

Wider is better

In contrast, by widening the available flood-flow area, the river has more space to store floodwaters until they recede, and there is a larger area in which the river can deposit sediment, the study said.

The county is moving ahead with the study’s data.

“We want to build a bigger bathtub and let the river migrate,” explained Katy Vanderpool, White River Basin coordinator for King County.

Not everyone is convinced the mitigation efforts will safeguard property.

“King County has put forth a reasonable plan for the river, but that’s not to say it’s a resonable plan for this neighborhood,” said Cathern Edenholm, a White River Estates resident whose home was damaged in the ’09 flood.

As Edenholm explains, there is no guarantee that such mitigation will thwart the next flood.

“I know they are trying to manage the river, but rivers go where rivers go,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what we do.”

As for the expected drop in property values, Edenholm said home values in the flood plain have been declining in the wake of recent flood measures, including the presence of a park-bordering sandbag wall.

“Property values are already affected because there is flood equipment all over this place,” she added.

Hildreth would rather improve the flow of the river than displace families. The homes bought by the county were not affected by the ’09 flood, he pointed out.

But Vanderpool said those homes remain closest to the river, and thus are in a dangerous position, susceptible to a high-water flood.

From Vanderpool’s observation at a recent open house gathering in the neighborhood, most homeowners understand the vulnerability and remain anxious because of what came their way in 2009. They understand the significance and importance of a levee setback, she said.

Hildreth plans to work with the county to ensure that the “integrity” of the rest of the White River Estate neighborhood is protected and preserved and that paths and trails are opened up to improve access to the river.

“I will miss the families who have sold their homes to King County,” Hildreth said, “and I hope they will decide to remain here in the Pacific community.”

In all, the county is working to set back the levees along both banks of the river.

On the east side of the river:

• A flood-protection project known at the “Countyline to A Street” project is planned to significantly reduce flood elevations by increasing flood storage and conveyance along this portion of the river. An old levee along the river would be removed, and a new levee would be built farther back from the river.

• King County is working to purchase 47 acres of land for the $8 million project. The King County Flood Control District, the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board and other sources would provide funding for the project.