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La Conner still thinking about flood protection

January 28, 2019

LA CONNER — About two decades in the making, La Conner is as close as it’s ever been to constructing a dike that would protect the town during a Skagit River flood, but finalizing a design and coming up with funding remain hurdles.

Town Administrator Scott Thomas said the Town Council needs to develop a clear direction in order to move forward with any type of flood protection, and that direction remains unclear.

However, in December the Town Council put another $50,000 into the town’s flood control fund and is poised to tour the proposed dike site next month with the goal of coming to a consensus on how to proceed.

At this point, one option for what is being called a ring dike has moved into the permitting stage. It is an earthen dike designed by CHS Engineers in 2017.

La Conner has been partnering with CHS Engineers since 2016 to design the dike, which would run along the south bank of the drainage ditch north of the school ball fields, continue to La Conner-Whitney Road and pick up on the east side of the road.

The dike would close a .7-mile gap between the agricultural dikes along Sullivan Slough and the seawall dike along the Swinomish Channel.

During a major river flood, the dike would prevent water from entering the town from the northeast by directing flow to the channel or slough.

“Can it be physically constructed? No concerns,”’ Principal Engineer Evan Henke said. “Getting it permitted through environmental concerns and county bureaucracy is the next hill they have to get over.”

Last summer, the proposed dike had an estimated price tag of $950,000, though town officials often refer to the dike as costing just over $1 million.

The town does not have a way for paying for the project at this point, but Thomas said voted and non-voted bonds have been suggested as a means for funding.

Other less costly flood protection options, such as a temporary dike and or concrete blocks, are also being considered.

A real danger

A 2014 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draft study estimated a major flood called a 100-year flood would impact 223 structures in La Conner and result in nearly $21 million in damages.

Levee breaches south of Burlington in the Riverbend and North Fork regions of the Skagit River were analyzed for the report.

A 100-year flood has a 1 percent likelihood of occurring in any given year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

While that may sound like a slim chance, La Conner Town Councilman Jacques Brunisholz has been adamant for years that now is the time to act as weather events have become increasingly unpredictable.

“Climate change is here, and we need to deal with it in order to be safe,” he said.

Since joining the council in 2008, Brunisholz said everyone has been supportive of his call for flood protection, but insufficient funding and lack of urgency have slowed the process.

But for Brunisholz, who lives in the Skagit River floodplain and pays about $800 a year in mandatory flood insurance, the inevitability of a flood cannot be ignored.

About 77 percent of La Conner lies in the floodplain, according to the town’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan.

Though La Conner hasn’t been hit by a river flood in decades, the threat of such an event is all too real.

Forming a plan

In 1993, La Conner became part of the Skagit River General Investigation.

The intent of the investigation, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was to identify flood risks in the Skagit Valley and develop a large-scale project to provide flood protection from 2020 to 2070.

Constructing a dike around La Conner was part of the plan.

But in 2015 — after $14.5 million was spent over 22 years — the county pulled out of the investigation when the corps asked for more time and money to finish it.

County officials said taxpayer money would be better spent on small-scale flood risk management projects, rather than on a study that was stuck in the second of five phases.

If the study had been completed and flood protection constructed, residents and businesses in Skagit County would have been able to qualify for lower flood insurance rates and other cost-saving measures related to flooding.

Once the study was canceled, the Corps of Engineers reached out to La Conner to discuss a Section 205 project, which would allow the corps to do a small flood control study for the town.

La Conner Mayor Ramon Hayes said the town declined to participate due to insufficient funds and has been heading its own project ever since.

Town budget sheets show $107,628.97 has been spent on flood work since 2010 — the year the town’s flood control fund was created.

According to the sheets, the majority of funds have gone toward engineering and attorney costs.

Thomas said the town does not have readily available data that predates 2010.

The fund’s current balance rests at $137,097 after $50,000 of the town’s $5.8 million budget was reallocated in December from the budgets for the fire department, Art’s Alive, Fourth of July, mayor and staff.

“It’s not a lot, but it’s a nice message to give,” Brunisholz said of the contribution.

By working with CHS Engineers, the town moved forward with one design from two primary options — a costly but minimal impact sheet pile dike and a cheaper earthen dike that would take up more space.

Designs show the earthen dike would span 31 feet across at its base and have a top elevation of about 9 feet, though the dike would appear to about 5 feet tall in most areas.

Henke said both models would protect the town equally, but the sheet pile dike would be twice as expensive as the $1 million earthen dike.

“As long as it’s high enough, that’s what matters,” he said.

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