Thursday, July 27, 2017 This Week's Paper

Flood District Begins Formation

With the recent Pierce County Council’s passage of the creation of a county-wide Flood Control Zone, the rules and policies to fund levee work and water-retention projects around the county are being drafted.

The mission of the flood control district is to generate tax dollars that would be used to protect lives, homes and businesses around the county from catastrophic losses caused by flooding, particularly if the Puyallup River overruns its banks and shuts down Interstate 5 the way waters did in Lewis County three years ago. The economic impact of that flooding exceeded $10 million per day.

The Flood Control Zone became official in April, but the County Council is now developing ways the district will operate and how the district will determine the tax rate that property owners will pay to fund projects.

“The flood hazards in the county are real,” said Brian Ziegler, director of Pierce County Public Works and Utilities.

Not only are there direct threats to life and property if the aging levees and current projects fail to keep the waters within the riverbanks, but there is a growing threat to business, the environment, transportation and tourism dollars if the area floods. An analysis released in October 2010 concluded the county could face economic losses of more than $725 million. The county estimates that some 21,000 people would be directly affected by a massive flood, while some 17,000 jobs would be lost or stalled. Some 9,300 homes in the county would face significant damage. But to some degree, everyone in the county would be touched by the rising waters through impacts on work or travel or by the environmental damage flood waters would bring. Some 216,000 people, for example, would be affected by the loss of sewer treatment services if the three sewer treatment plants located within local flood plains have to shut down as water rises around them. That could lead to untreated sewage flowing into local waterways.

“People don’t stop flushing because of a flood,” Ziegler said. “The rivers will always be our sewer system whether we treat what goes into the rivers or not.”

Faced with rising urbanization of the county, a flood control system that dates backs to the 1920s that does not meet current standards and is reaching the end of useful life, the district was needed to fill the gap between the current flow of just $2 million a year in flood-control dollars into a system that already needs more than $300 million in repairs and upgrades.

The district’s funding is expected to come from a levy of 10 cents per $1,000 assessed value, which amounts to $20 a year on a $200,000 home. The money cannot be used for anything other than flood-related actions. That tax rate will generate about $8 million that will be matched with federal funds to chip away at the backlog of repairs. The 10-cent rate is what has been recommended by the County Council as the district was forming. State law allows for five times that rate. A decision of what rate taxpayers will actually pay will rest with the Flood Control District’s Board of Supervisors. That board is made up of County Council members, meaning the members will largely be advising themselves.

“It is kind of a quirk in state law,” Ziegler said.

That district will have an advisory board of city officials collected from around Pierce County, although the specifics are being worked out now. More details will come later this summer.

While the district takes official form, research on flood control methods continues. County, municipal and Corps of Engineers officials are two years into a six year flood-control study that will target what projects will be most beneficial in controlling floods as well as put the levees and retention projects into a pool of projects around the country that would then compete for federal funding.

Fife sits at the lowest point in Pierce County, making it the most likely to be flooded by rainwater and melting snow from the far reaches of the area. While the Flood Control District was generally welcoming news to the Fife City Council during a recent briefing on the issue, support was less than unquestioning.

“I support it but also am troubled by it,” Councilmember Richard Godwin said.

The idea of studying flood-control projects does not seem to have progressed much in recent years.

“You would be better off taking all the studies and make a levee out of them because nothing physical has happened with those folks,” he said of the Army Corps of Engineers. “I don’t know how much more you can study it. Something has to happen here. The river isn’t going to wait on your studies.”

Mayor Pro Tem Glenn Hull questioned why the proposed advisory board only lists Puyallup Tribe as a rotating member, noting that not only does much of the Puyallup River sit within the reservation, the tribe is such an active member in what happens along the waterway.

“They play such an important role,” he said.

The advisory board to the Flood Control Board of Supervisors would help determine which cities and towns within the county would receive local grant dollars for smaller flood-control projects in their areas. The “opportunity fund” system was a concession for cities like Gig Harbor, DuPont, Steilacoom, University Place and Milton that do not see direct impacts of seasonal flooding the way Fife and low-land areas do. While much less significant in terms of potential flooding impacts, Pierce County has 11 significant flood plains along the Puyallup, White, Carbon, Nisqually, Greenwater and Mashel rivers, and South Prairie Creek. The flood plains range from the very urban nine miles along the lower Puyallup River to the rural Nisqually River between Elbe and Ashford. Many of the levees along these rivers were built more than 80 years ago by farmers to protect their fields. Now, these aging levees protect major business centers, residences and critical public facilities such as roads, bridges and sewer treatment plants that need to be upgraded.