Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Olympia Community Responds to City Sea Level Rise Report

Above: A high tide laps at the back door of Bayview Thriftway in downtown Olympia on December 18, 2015. Percival Landing is seen on the right. The tide was 16.2 feet at 10:13 a.m., just about the time this picture was taken.

Community Members Offer Sea Level Rise Comments, Solutions

By Janine Gates

The underlying message by City of Olympia public works staff to city leaders last week, that sea level rise planning must become incorporated into responsible community conversations and downtown land use decisions, seemed to take councilmembers by surprise.

After all, the message was in conflict with the fact that the council has moved forward on multiple downtown development projects in precisely the area destined to be first impacted by sea level rise.

Disregarding past reports and persistent community voices, the city embraced the massive 123 4th Avenue housing project, and allocated $250,000 to form a downtown strategy. That money came from 2014 year end savings and is anticipated to be adopted at the end of 2016.

To encourage new development, the city recently hired an economic development director, and is hammering out a downtown Community Renewal Area (CRA) plan. Begun in 2013, the effort now needs $40,000 more to complete its work with its legal consultant. The city also approved $35,000 for developer Walker John and his company, Urban Olympia, to scope out a plan of work for the aptly named Water Street Redevelopment Area.

The total CRA budget revised for 2016: $342,500.

In an oral staff report provided to the city’s Community and Economic Revitalization Committee (CERC) on February 8, it was noted that the same developer is moving quickly in his efforts to develop the parcels owned by the Port of Olympia bordering State and Cherry Street, across from the Hands On Children’s Museum. Concept plans have already been drawn up by architect Ron Thomas.

As the council subcommittee bantered around their work plan goals, questioned whether or not a CRA is really needed given the fact that the economy is moving, and welcomed the planning of two developer roundtable discussions specific to the downtown strategy by the end of March, the words “sea level rise” were never spoken.

Above: Walking along Percival Landing near Sylvester Street on December 18, 2015, electrical boxes and lighting components behind the Oyster House are clearly submerged by Budd Inlet. The tide was 16.2 feet at the time this picture was taken. 

Community Efforts and Responses to Sea Level Rise Report

Given downtown Olympia’s proximity to Budd Inlet, the sheer amount of engineering that needs to occur to prepare downtown Olympia for climate change and sea level rise is almost unimaginable.

But some South Sounders have offered their expertise, thoughts, and solutions on the matter for years.

Following the sea level rise report delivered by staff to Olympia city council on February 9, community member and economist Jim Lazar issued a few ideas during public comment period.

“Aberdeen and Hoquiam require all new buildings in their downtown areas to mound up their building sites at least three feet. We can do that here. Some people have said that we will not abandon downtown. If that’s what you believe, start budgeting like you mean it. The engineered response to sea level rise will cost tens of millions of dollars.”

Saying he was the part owner of a downtown business, he requested that the council poll downtown business owners to see if they were willing to approve a two million per year local improvement district or diking district levy to start paying for this.

“…But if the owners of these buildings are not willing to invest what it will cost to protect their investment, maybe that tells us something. If asked…I would vote no unless there was some certainty that a long-term plan was in place, adequately funded, and likely to succeed. A reasonable plan would be to impose a development moratorium on the low-lying parts of downtown until a plan is perfected, and funding is assured,” said Lazar.

Community member Daniel Einstein immediately submitted a letter to councilmembers, taking issue with staff comments that without the dam, the lake would flood more frequently.

“An important question is, how do we translate those 2007 Capitol Lake Adaptive Management Plan (CLAMP) report findings ten years down the road when sea-level rise must now be considered inevitable? There is no perfect translation of course, but here are a few things to consider,” he wrote.

“First, as sea-level rises, the 5th Avenue dam will become inoperable. Tides will flow back into the basin no matter what we do. In other words, given the forecasts…the dam will not be relevant. Second, a lot has changed from a regulatory point of view since the dam was constructed. There is no way a new, higher dam would ever be permitted, even if it could be engineered.”

“An additional point to be considered is that the lake is filling up rapidly with sediment. As it does, its capacity to hold water decreases making flooding more likely. This was the Deschutes Estuary Feasibility Study’s (DEFS) conclusion. If the estuary were restored there would be more capacity for the rising sea - more room for the waters to flow.  As it is now, there is no depth in the “lake” and a dam plugging up the system. However, when the DEFS was done sea-level rise was a less thought of phenomenon….

“I do believe this is an issue that we should look into further as we decide what and where to protect and how to pay for it. It is also something to consider as we decide the future of the isthmus,” wrote Einstein.

Sue Patnude of the Deschutes Estuary Restoration Team (DERT), a local nonprofit, also weighed in:

“....The lake is getting shallower and shallower, eliminating its capacity to hold water, and the dam is in disrepair. Constant repair and money will be needed to monitor the ability of the dam to function in the future. It is old, and should it fail in a closed position, flooding will be inevitable.”   

Patnude said the state Department of Enterprise Services (DES) has proposed $500,000 in its capital budget for routine inspections of the dam and upgrades to the service life of the facility within the resources provided. The dam was built in 1951.

Above: Roger Horn stands on Percival Landing near Bayview Market on December 18, 2015. The tide, at the time this picture was taken, was 16.2 feet. The high tide for December was 16.4 feet. Percival Landing was constructed in three phases in the 1970s and 1980s.

Upon hearing the report, Roger Horn, a former, longtime member of Olympia’s Planning Commission, became concerned about whether or not the 30 foot setback as stated in the city’s new Shoreline Master Plan is going to be enough for new construction.

“In terms of possible solutions, I’d prefer on-shore berms to bulkheads or seawalls….The first thing that came to my mind was the Percival Landing replacement project and how that project will address sea level rise since super high tides already come within inches of businesses at Fourth and Water Street,” he told Little Hollywood.

Phase two improvements for Percival Landing are slated for the area around Water Street and the Oyster House restaurant, near The Kiss statue. To ensure continued progress towards the replacement of Percival Landing, the city’s current capital facilities plan budgets $199,000 for design efforts, to be spent in 2016. Actual initiation of the project is not scheduled to occur for several years.

TCAT Survey Reveals Possible Local Solutions

Another non-profit, the Thurston Climate Action Team (TCAT), recognized the risk of sea level rise to the city, and inventoried greenhouse gas emissions in Thurston County and its cities.

Recently, TCAT led a detailed survey of attitudes within the county on energy and climate change and the willingness to address it financially.

One survey question asked, “If nothing is done to reduce global climate change, how serious of a problem do you think it will be for Thurston County—very serious, somewhat serious, not so serious, or not serious at all?”

Combining the “very serious” and “serious” responses, 76 percent of respondents believed there will be serious local consequences for not addressing climate change.

Respondents were asked about their willingness to personally contribute money for renewable energy and energy conservation projects and what kind of taxing mechanism they would prefer for financing those efforts. Dollar ranges were provided as options. 

Over 75 percent of respondents indicated they were willing to pay something to promote renewable energy and energy conservation, and a solid majority, nearly 69 percent, were willing to pay at least $10 per year.

Another surprising result was the number of people willing to pay over $60 per year. Among those willing to contribute, the highest number, nearly 22 percent, indicated they would pay over $120 per year. To generate those revenues, nearly 63 percent mentioned they would support a tax increase of some sort.

“This creates an opportunity for local governments (county, city, PUD, Port and others) to coordinate a county wide effort to encourage and incentivize the use of clean energy. A reasonable next step toward creating a county-wide clean energy program would be a collaborative design effort led by local government, completed in a relatively short period of time,” says the report.

The report was completed in September 2015 with financial support from Thurston County and LOTT Clean Water Alliance and faculty participation by The Evergreen State College, Saint Martin’s University, and South Puget Sound Community College.

Tom Crawford, vice president of TCAT, is leading the Climate and Clean Energy Work Group within Thurston Thrives. Thurston Thrives is the county Board of Health's initiative to engage the community in taking action to improve the health of Thurston County's population. The environment is one of the nine key areas. 

“These survey products become resources to form a solid foundation for local solutions,” said Graeme Sackrison, former mayor of Lacey and board chair of TCAT.


For more information about the City of Olympia's Downtown Strategy, go to www.olympia.wa.gov/DTS. On Saturday, February 20, 2016, 9:30 a.m. - noon, at the Olympia Center, 222 Columbia Street NW, the city is sponsoring a workshop to evaluate downtown strategy proposals about the mix and areas of emphasis for downtown residential, retail, entertainment, and more. All this planning takes on a new meaning in light of the sea level rise report.

Community Discussion of Climate Crisis Actions, Sunday, February 21, 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m, United Churches, Fireside Room, 11th Avenue SE, Olympia. The event is sponsored by the Olympia FOR Climate Crisis group, who welcomes new people to the movement to address climate change.

For more information about Thurston Thrives, go to www.thurstonthrives.org. Its next meeting is February 29, 3:00 p.m. – 5:00.p.m., Thurston County Courthouse. 

For more information about the Thurston Climate Action Team’s work, go to www.thurstonclimateaction.org.

For past stories about the City of Olympia's sea level rise report, Capitol Lake, high tide pictures in 2010 and 2012 around Percival Landing, the Community and Economic Revitalization Committee (CERC), and more, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com, and type key words into the search button.