Burlington project could wash problems downstream

Dike District 12 commissioner Chuck Bennett worked with engineers designing the new Skagit River bridge between Burlington and Mount Vernon so it will accommodate future widening of the river channel. The dike district and Burlington have been working on a plan to pull back the levees between the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad bridge and the Interstate 5 bridge.

Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald



When farmers near Burlington started molding sand and clay dikes along the Skagit River in the late 1890s, they were concerned with protecting the surrounding farms from the heavy spring rains and snowmelt from the mountains.

A century later, flood protection in Burlington has become much more complicated and the city has much more to lose.

What used to be farmland and small homes is now a burgeoning, congested commercial strip. The community is now worth about $796 million.

The city and Burlington's main flood protector, Dike District 12, plan to widen the Skagit River channel from about 800 feet to 1,300 feet, through what's known as the three-bridge corridor.

The three-pronged plan includes:

- Buying property along that section of river.

- Lengthening the bridges.

- Creating a secondary dike system in the east side of Burlington.

Dike district officials say they're moving

ahead with that plan, no matter what Skagit County decides to do on a larger scale about flood control.

Critics say Burlington's efforts to protect its valuable commercial land and its residents could spell disaster for its neighbors to the south.

Widening the river channel to relieve flooding at Burlington means the floodwaters could instead roll down the river and spill over -- or in some cases through -- the levees near south Mount Vernon and Fir Island, critics say.

Bottleneck identified

Dike district commissioners say the project is still being tweaked as new information is analyzed. They're willing to make changes and concessions as they join with Skagit County to incorporate their plans into a regional flood control project.

Dike District 12 is the largest and most powerful dike district in Skagit County, protecting about 20,000 acres of land from United General Hospital and Highway 20, west to all of Burlington and back east around Bradshaw Road to the Skagit River.

Pulling back the dikes is a critical piece of the flood protection puzzle, said Chuck Bennett, Dike District 12 commissioner.

"It's really a no-brainer what had to be done," Bennett said. "Everybody knows it's a bottleneck through there."

Skagit County flood experts agree. County staffers, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, came to the same conclusion while working on a regional flood control plan.

The problem is the area between the dikes narrow as the river approaches the railroad bridge. That narrowing could send floodwater spilling over the dikes into Burlington and Mount Vernon, said Don Dixon, surface water section manager of Skagit County.

Dikes vulnerable

No time was the county more aware of the danger than after the 1990 flood that covered Fir Island and wreaked havoc on other areas of the Skagit River basin.

At the time, water filled about 8,000 acres in the Nookachamps Creek area that Burlington has used as an artificial reservoir, said Larry Kunzler, investigator for a Seattle law firm and local flood activist.

"There was a lot of fear then," Kunzler said. "It was the first time that they (dike district commissioners) have seen the reservoir full."

Burlington and Mount Vernon are especially prone to flood damage, said Margaret Fleek, Burlington planning director.

Except for Burlington Hill and a few pieces here and there, Burlington is almost totally in the flood plain.

The dikes in Burlington held up during the 1990 and 1995 floods, considered 25- and 35-year flood events. But the earthen barriers would not withstand a benchmark 100-year-flood.

"We have to have a plan, or the dikes could blow," Fleek said.

A 1993 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers supported the suspicion that the levees through the Burlington-Mount Vernon area would have to be pulled back to handle a more serious flood.

So Dike District 12 and Burlington began preparing to widen the river channel. The district started buying property within 300 feet of the levees along a three-mile stretch from the Avon area to the railroad bridge.

Others concerned

While the dike district and county are working on widening the corridor, dike district officials to the south say the project might end up shifting the flood danger to them.

They say widening the river through the corridor without either building a channel to reroute the water to Padilla Bay or setting back the levees all the way down the river would force floodwaters to once again squeeze through a narrowing river channel.

"This widening project is being proposed on its own with no guarantee of being done concurrent with the bypass," said Donald Moe, commissioner for Dike District 1. "Something has to be done to mitigate the effect on our district."

County, Burlington and dike district officials say they know their plan isn't perfect.

Dixon said work on the bridges and widening the levees most likely won't happen for another five years. By that time, he hopes the county will be able to build the bypass channel.

"We're going to address those concerns," Dixon said.

n Beverly Crichfield can be reached at 360-416-2132 or by e-mail at bcrichfield@skagitvalleyherald.com.


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