The Nooksack River – Solutions on the Floodplain
by Izzie Lund
In February 2020, a large flood from the Nooksack River (1) devastated parts of Whatcom County and left many wondering: what will city and county officials do next?
When it comes to reducing the effects of flooding, there is no single, clear-cut solution. Instead, city and county officials are approaching the problem from a variety of angles, from levee restoration to revising disaster plans.
“Flooding is a natural process,” said Paula Harris, river and flood manager for Whatcom County. “The whole challenge is how we make sure our infrastructure and people don’t get harmed.”
Floodplains That Work
Curt Hart, communication manager for the Washington state Department of Ecology, said one of the biggest challenges for coming up with flood solutions is balancing a variety of factors.
“[The biggest question is] how do you make a program that reduces flood risks, restores the floodplains, and helps restore aquatic species and helps public access to shorelines?” Hart said.
To answer this question, the state Department of Ecology created the Floodplains by Design (2) program in 2013. The program provides grants to communities that will allow them to pursue projects that will increase the resiliency of floodplains — including the Nooksack River.
In 2019, the Washington state Legislature approved $50.4 million for the 2019-21 two-year state capital budget for 10 Floodplains by Design projects that span across the state. Over $6 million went to Whatcom County Public Works for phase one of the “Nooksack River: Floodplains that Work” (3) project, making it the highest-funded project for the 2019-21 fiscal cycle.
Hart said the most common solutions across the state are levee improvements, reconnecting river channels and floodproofing infrastructure.
According to Whatcom County’s Floodplains by Design website, the “Floodplains that Work” grant is going to designs for Ferndale (4) and Lynden levee improvements, the design for an alluvial fan restoration project (5) for Glacier and Gallup creeks, and purchasing land in the Acme community for debris flow mitigation. It also supports the Floodplain Integrated Planning (FLIP) team (6).
According to the website, Whatcom County will seek $6.5 million in the 2021-23 state budget to fund phase two of the project, which will build on the work in phase one. Hart said Gov. Jay Inslee has not yet signed the measure that will fund the Floodplains by Design program for the 2021-23 fiscal year, although he is expected to.
The FLIP team includes representatives from the federal, state, county, city and tribal levels.
They are currently updating the 1999 Lower Nooksack River Comprehensive Flood Hazard Management Plan (7), which recommends strategies and projects to reduce flood hazards. Their efforts are mostly focused on tweaking these strategies to address concerns about salmon habitat and agricultural land use in the floodplain.
The comprehensive flood hazard management plan is not the only policy document that officials are eyeing after the 2020 flood.
Maralise Fegan, a councilmember on the Ferndale City Council, said Ferndale is in the middle of revamping their emergency operations plan. Washington state requires cities to have this plan, which governs a city’s response to emergencies and disaster events.
“It’s a comprehensive document that we use to help keep our emergency response structured so that everyone has the same playbook, right, and everybody knows what’s going on and who to talk to about what types of situations,” Fegan said.
Fegan said the current plan does not align with the standardized Incident Command System, which has been adopted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many larger governmental organizations that do disaster response. She went on to say that the inability to cooperate within this system could prevent Ferndale from seeking financial support from FEMA, especially in a large-scale disaster.
“We’re hoping that by putting in this new plan, it will bring us in line with those larger government agencies to make it easier for us to interact with them … in a more streamlined way and be in a better position to seek financial assistance,” Fegan said. “We’re hoping to push that through later this year … so that in any future events, we have a much clearer idea of how the city is supposed to operate.”
The county is also reviewing its natural hazards mitigation plan, which identifies natural hazards that impact the county, assesses the county’s vulnerability to these hazards, and proposes strategies that will lessen the severity of natural disasters. Whatcom County submits a plan to FEMA every five years, which allows the county to receive federal funding for mitigation projects. The last time the county submitted a plan to FEMA was 2016.
According to the Whatcom County website (8), they will submit their plan to FEMA in 2021, using the 2016 plan as a basis. They hosted three public workshops on March 23, April 13 and May 11, and are seeking public feedback in a comment form (9) on the website.
Gravel Removal: A Possible Tool?
A popular idea in the community is gravel removal, which involves removing sediment from the river to prevent it from building up. Kyle Christensen, mayor of Sumas and a supporter of gravel removal, said he is pursuing this option.
“The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is projects like removing the sediment from the Sumas River,” Christensen said. “These are just meetings right now, there are no projects officially moving forward at this point.”
Christensen said he is arranging meetings with county officials but could not disclose further information yet.
“We haven’t made any changes since the flood last year, and that concerns me,” Christensen said. “That’s why I’m pushing to get a project put together and get the county behind it, the state behind it, the federal agencies.”
Harris said gravel removal could potentially be an option in the future, but more research needs to be done.
“Gravel removal is not the end-all solution,” Harris said. “It’s a tool in our toolbox, but how much the benefits of that outweigh the cost is still yet to be determined.”
Harris also said gravel removal needs to be carefully considered, because it can negatively affect fish habitat, including species of salmon that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. She said there are alternatives, such as excavating a side channel, but it would be a short-term solution because it would not remove a ton of gravel.
“[These methods are not enough] by themselves; they would have to work hand-in-hand with the toolbox,” Harris said.
She went on to say that the county had considered some of these alternatives, including the side channel, and conducted a pilot study years ago. The permitting agencies told them they needed to do more in-depth investigation about how the sediment affects the river.
“We’re not as smart as you think we are,” Harris said. “The model we use routes water, not sediment. And during a flood, no one knows what is going on at the bottom of the river.”
Hart said he does not see gravel removal included in projects a lot, although there are some communities who could benefit from it.
“We’re not going to say ‘no dredging allowed,’ that’s not our philosophy, because it could make sense in some situations … it’s going to be very issue- and area-specific,” Hart said. “One thing is, what do you do with the [sediment] and how are you disrupting the aquatic habitat by doing dredging and gravel removal? And sometimes that is actually more of a detriment than it would be to do the dredging.”
Despite the best mitigation efforts, floods will still naturally occur. Officials say it is important to know how to stay safe.
Fegan said no one should ever try to drive through floodwaters, and she also stressed the importance of filling houses and cars with important items like a cellphone charger, a flashlight, garbage bags, protein bars and bottles of water.
Greg Hansen, mayor of Ferndale, said the public should always have an escape plan, because a flood can grow dramatically in a number of minutes.
“If you’re in a low-water area, make sure you are packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice because, if we did have a 100-year event in Ferndale, it would impact quite a lot of people,” Hansen said.
Hansen emphasized that most of the community rests on a floodplain, so flood preparation should be a part of daily life.
“I grew up here in Ferndale,” Hansen said. “I remember being, like, four years old and wanting to go sandbag by the river during a flood, and my parents said no, and I was furious. Everyone was going to the river, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Izzie Lund is a reporting intern at Whatcom Watch, former editor-in-chief for The Western Front and a third-year journalism and political science major at Western Washington University. You can find her on Twitter @ izzielund.