Flood project greeted with skepticism


Swinomish Diversion is one of four alternatives under consideration

Skagit Herald

Skagit County officials had a few more answers about a proposed flood-control project, but many at a public meeting Wednesday evening remained skeptical about the wisdom and even the need for the project.

The topic of the meeting was the proposed Swinomish Diversion, a channel that would take floodwater from the Skagit River near Burlington and Mount Vernon to Padilla Bay. County officials invited residents who live in the potential path of the channel to the meeting.

The diversion channel is one of four alternatives officially being studied to prevent a huge flood from inundating much of western Skagit County.

The county commissioners favor the channel.

Other possibilities are widening the river channel from Burlington to Skagit Bay, which officials say would be more expensive; allowing up to five preselected areas to flood, which the commissioners say is not acceptable, and doing nothing.

Chal Martin, the county’s director of public works, presented a timeline for the project, which would go to a public vote around April 2004. Construction would begin in 2006 or 2007 and last three to five years.

The local cost taxpayers is estimated at $60 million, to be paid over 20 years. Martin even presented a guess of how much it would cost in property taxes — 62 cents per $1,000 valuation, or $112 a year for a $180,000 home.

Many people questioned the specifics of the plan, such the 2,000-foot width of the channel, the alignment at the north end of the river bend and whether to install a year-round channel for salmon habitat. Those are all open for discussion during the next two years, Martin said.

The public oversight process is beginning, so anyone who wants to work on a committee can make their interest known now, said Dave Brookings, the county’s public works administrator.

A few people said the project wouldn’t be necessary if the county and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would resume dredging the river, something that was last done in about 1961.

Resident Jack Harlow said in his 65 years in Skagit County, he’s never seen a flood that required more than knee waders in downtown Mount Vernon. He said the river could be dredged and the tailings sold to farmers, who would value it as fertile topsoil.

In response, Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt pointed to a chart that showed no major floods since 1931, but eight major ones between 1815 and 1931.

The 1990 and 1995 floods were about 35-year floods, relatively minor compared to the 100-year flood that would make create a giant lake from Burlington to the Swinomish Channel.

Dredging the river would be an expensive proposition that would lower the river a foot or two during a minor flood, but wouldn’t make a dent in a major flood, Dahlstedt said.

The Corps of Engineers, which used to dredge to help boats get up the river, is unwilling to resume dredging, said Don Dickson, the county’s surface water manager.

“It never had any real impact on flood control, and they maintain it never could,” he said.

Many home and business owners came to the meeting for answers about relocation, but the Corps’ scheduled speaker couldn’t make it due to a death in the family.

Dahlstedt said about 110 families and businesses would have to be relocated if the project goes through.

Lorna Ellestad, who is researching property acquisition for the county, said everybody will be given one-on-one assistance, and the packages will include the cost of relocation, not just the cost of the new house or business.

Dahlstedt said the county will even be willing to move houses if that’s what people prefer.

Not everybody will be moveable, though, he acknowledged. A 180-acre crop farm that’s been in the family for generations can’t be replaced with other land or any amount of money, he said.


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