Saturday, April 8, 2017

Olympia Starts Sea Level Rise Planning

Above: Over 100 interested community members attended the City of Olympia's annual sea level rise report to the community, delivered by Andy Haub, the city's water resources director, at the Olympia Center on February 8. Olympia is starting a coordinated sea level rise response plan with the Port of Olympia and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance.

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

“This is going to go on forever…this will be our future,” said Andy Haub, City of Olympia water resources director, about the city's planning for sea level rise. 

Speaking to the city’s citizen utility advisory committee on Thursday evening, Haub provided an update on the city’s sea level rise plan and the committee's role in its implementation. 

The citizen advisory committee is charged with overseeing the city’s sea level rise planning process.

Looking at a draft plan schedule that included typical public outreach tools employed by the city, the group was quiet and seemingly a bit daunted by the responsibility. 

When a member questioned how they should go about their role, Haub admitted that there is no clear recipe.

“You’ll have to use your collective judgement,” Haub said, acknowledging that sea level science is evolving, but there are strategies the city can draw upon from around the country and the world.

They agreed that the ultimate governance for the plan, whatever that plan turns out to be, needs to be carried through the whole process, and not left to the end.

At its regular Tuesday meeting, April 11, the Olympia city council is expected to sign an interlocal agreement with the Port of Olympia and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance for the planning and assessment of sea level rise issues.

The city, Port of Olympia, and LOTT all own properties and have responsibilities in the area where sea level rise is expected to inundate downtown Olympia.

An international engineering firm, AECOM, has been chosen to help the city determine the plan’s scope of work and ensure a robust public involvement process.

The scope of work will focus on the development of a sea level rise plan and provide recommendations for capital projects, funding needs, implementation schedules, and emergency response protocols.

The plan will include a full analysis of options for responding to various sea level rise scenarios over a 100 year time frame, and look for ideas from other areas of the United States and the world.

The city, port, and LOTT will divide the costs for consulting services. The port and LOTT will pay up to $75,000 each and the city will pay at least $75,000. Total costs for consulting are not to exceed $250,000 without further negotiation and approval.

According to science based research and multiple reports, there is no doubt sea level rise will impact downtown Olympia as we know it.

Thad Curtz, former chair of the Utility Advisory Committee citizen advisory committee, was one of several community members who expressed concerns on Thursday about the plan’s scope of work.

The staff presentation said that we’re eventually going to have eight feet of sea level rise. We ought to be thinking about (a plan) with respect to earthquake risk. If we have four feet of sea water outside of whatever we build, and we have an earthquake that impacts a dike or whatever, we’re going to have very serious costs. We need to be planning to deal with that.

We’re talking about restoration of Budd Inlet at the same time we’re talking about seriously altering the shoreline from Priest Point Park to West Bay. We also have the whole Capitol Lake process going on. Those planning processes ought to be related to each other.

We [also ought] to have a conversation about setbacks. How much room do we need between buildings and the shore if we’re going to have to deal with eight feet? We can’t just talk about sea level rise as if it’s something by itself,” said Curtz, who said he intends to stay involved with the conversation.

Former city planning commission member Judy Bardin said that adaptation for sea level rise will be a huge and costly undertaking, noting that city staff estimates that sea level rise adaptation for downtown Olympia will cost in excess of $60 million, and the pumping system alone could be $37 million.

“If the public is going to be asked to pay for sea level rise mitigation in any way, they need to be brought into the conversation now, especially in the scoping of the plan…we need to involve our neighborhoods and the environmental community,” she said.

Helen Wheatley of Olympia asked staff and the utility advisory committee members to think of all people who are impacted by utility decisions and plans.

“It includes everyone from low income apartment dwellers, to treaty tribe members struggling to preserve and enhance salmon habitat in the face of over a century of catastrophic assaults on the ecosystem,” she said.

Wheatley urged that the plan take a “safety first” approach that considers the realities of who lives there, who will live there in the future, and how we live.

“Is it fair or right to drive people into the flood zone because they don’t own a house?” she asked.

“Sea level rise will not happen overnight, but its progression will be relentless. We can choose to transition ourselves into a newer city by moving uphill. How long we hang on to different parts of downtown will involve tough financial, emotional, technical, and political decisions,” said Walt Jorgensen of Tumwater.

Sea Level Rise Community Update

Above: In what has become a familiar scene, the city's public works team, with Andy Haub, City of Olympia water resources director, in yellow jacket, stationed themselves near the Oyster House restaurant on Sylvester Street in downtown Olympia on the morning of March 10, 2016, to monitor the surge from nearby Budd Inlet.

Haub gave his annual sea level rise update to the community on February 8 at the Olympia Center. Over 100 people were in attendance.

Haub described how the city is currently needing to manage four to five significant downtown flooding incidents per year. To add to that scenario, downtown Olympia appears to be sinking at the rate of one inch per decade. 

A situation of low atmospheric pressure creates exceptional high tides, turning moderate tides into high tides, and high tides into extreme tides.

“That whole dynamic is absolutely fascinating…the intensity of storms will increase. Our downtown streets are flat, not deep, so water will spread far,” said Haub, who has long reported that the city could manage one foot, or maybe two feet of water, but no more than that. 

Vertical gates, flood barriers, elevated landscapes, and the strategic placement of planter box barriers will only work up to a certain point.

“We’re planning for two feet of sea level rise by 2050, but with two feet of water flooding downtown every other day, it just won’t work for long,” he said.

Audience members were at all different levels of understanding about sea level science, and peppered Haub with questions about sea level rise projections for downtown, Budd Inlet flood dynamics, and the city’s plan in relationship to other plans, such as the multi-year, $250,000 study called the Downtown Strategy.

The Downtown Strategy has a 20 year planning horizon, leaving many to wonder why the city is encouraging downtown development, and how sea level rise fits in.

Although port commissioners and city council members were present in the audience, Haub stood alone, fielding questions while facilitating a complicated conversation during his PowerPoint presentation. Lacking support, he lost control of the meeting about 20 minutes into the program.

Frustrating some audience members, Haub unquestionably defended the city’s stance that downtown must be saved. Several audience members expressed their opinion that the best solution is to retreat to higher ground. Haub responded that a retreat is not consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

Haub did not have answers for many questions, including the impact of sea water salinity on downtown’s underground and above ground electrical systems.

“Downtown is vulnerable. We have to accept and acknowledge the risk. This plan will start addressing how we balance and manage new development. There’s a way we can do it, it’s just not cohesive at this point,” he said, adding that the city has a lot of investments in downtown Olympia, most notably the region's LOTT water and wastewater system, which is valued at $1.2 billion.

Above: During times of high tide and favorable atmospheric pressure, certain areas of downtown Olympia are inundated with storm surge from Budd Inlet, overloading storm water systems. The area on State Street in downtown Olympia near the former Les Schwab tire store building at 210 State Street experiences flooding several times a year. The vacant building lies mere feet from Budd Inlet and is now owned by developer Walker John, who proposes to turn the property into a restaurant and 40 unit housing development. Photo taken March 10, 2016.

For numerous articles about sea level rise and flooding incidents in downtown Olympia, the management of Capitol Lake, current sea level rise projections for Olympia with photos and maps, go to Little Hollywood and type key words into the search button.

The city's Utility Advisory Committee meets on the first Thursday of the month, at 5:40 p.m., in Olympia City Hall, Room 207, 601 4th Avenue East. For more information, go to