Thursday, February 8, 2018

Sea Level Rise: Olympia is not Alone

Above: Regional elected officials met last Wednesday evening at Olympia City Hall to discuss sea level rise response planning efforts. Members of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater city councils, the Port of Olympia, Thurston County, and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance were in attendance.

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

Regional elected officials met January 31 to discuss the threat of sea level rise and began planning efforts to save downtown Olympia.

A sight rarely seen to discuss a singular issue, members of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater city councils, the Port of Olympia, Thurston County, and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance were in attendance at Olympia City Hall. 

Over 100 assets in downtown Olympia have been identified and categorized and a plan for phasing in specific actions, with an eye toward long range strategies, will begin. 

Justin Vandever of AECOM, the consultant firm hired by the entities, presented the latest sea level rise science specific to downtown Olympia. 

“We know the science is going to change…every few years we’re going to get new information. The likely sea level rise scenario will be 13 inches by 2050, and 36 inches by the end of the century…but there’s a lot of uncertainty…the high range is 24 inches by 2050,” he said.

Reminding officials that Olympia is not alone, Vandever provided examples of other cities, port districts and water and wastewater treatment plant facilities that are also facing sea level rise challenges.

Despite his experience in working with various entities, Vandever said Olympia is unique and its plans and ideas need to be relevant and flexible to the area, which includes three miles of shoreline.

Most of the graphics were overwhelming, eliciting a range of emotions, questions and comments.

Port of Olympia Commissioner EJ Zita expressed her views on mitigation and adaptation. 

“...Much of the hometown we love is going to flood. We have no choice but to adapt. Meanwhile, we can still make choices to mitigate - to slow or reduce climate change. By choosing to encourage dense urban development, especially on higher ground, we can make transportation more efficient, and preserve farmland and open spaces. By choosing renewables instead of coal in Washington State, we can make electricity cleaner. And by installing more charging stations, we can electrify vehicle transport.

“Ports can play a major role in mitigation. By cancelling the biggest oil terminal in the U.S., the Port of Vancouver discouraged oil transport and burning. Our own Port of Olympia could choose not to support fracking for fossil fuels,” she said.  

Lacey Deputy Mayor Cynthia Pratt focused her concerns on infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, fire and police stations, and the LOTT Cleanwater Alliance water and wastewater treatment plant.

“The plant represents a community investment of over $500 million dollars, and it is critical infrastructure that is essential to the continued protection of public health and our environment. It needs to be protected from sea level rise.”

She said she often hears from Lacey residents that they don't have to deal with sea level rises issues and asked Mike Strub, executive director of the LOTT Cleanwater Alliance, to explain what the impact would be to Lacey.

When Lacey toilets back up, then they will care, he quipped. Quickly getting serious, however, Strub explained how sea level rise will impact the whole region.

“There will be an impact on all communities. The process (of inundation) would cause the system to shut down. The Budd Inlet Treatment Plant is the mothership of the treatment system. We can keep it going for a little while, but if we lose power, we cant get water through the plant. It wouldnt go anywhere. It would be a serious situation. Its a fragile line. Once thats crossed, there are serious consequences.

Pratt, who serves as Laceys representative to the LOTT Board, elaborated on her concerns to Little Hollywood after the meeting:

“LOTT will need to keep updating equipment, such as generators and pumps, which will add costs to ratepayers. I think that is an important element for Lacey because they don’t get the connection between us and Olympia’s “problem.” It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue. Obviously, if LOTT fails, there will be issues, but it also means that wastewater spills untreated into Budd Inlet....I truly think this conundrum needs to be addressed in the outreach plan. It isn’t just an Olympia, LOTT facility, Port problem but rather a system-wide issue.” 

Olympia City Councilmember Jessica Bateman asked several questions about Capitol Lake, and the assumptions used, given the possibility it could revert back to an estuary. 

The state Department of Enterprise Services is responsible for lake management. 

Andy Haub, City of Olympia water resources director for public works, responded that Capitol Lake is in the inundation zone and the intent of a plan is to accommodate whatever Capitol Lake becomes.

Port of Olympia Commissioner Bill McGregor mentioned his concerns about the protection of Cascade Pole, the former wood-treating site on port property that requires an on-site pumping and treatment system to remove contaminants from groundwater. He wondered why the state wasnt involved in protecting its investment, since it has spent millions cleaning up the area. 

Haub admitted that Ecology nor the Department of Natural Resources has expressed interest.

Olympia City Councilmember Clark Gilman said it was hubris to try and defend what downtown looks like now and urged that environmental and social justice organizations be involved in the public planning process.

City of Tumwater councilmember Tom Oliva asked about plans to finance sea level rise planning strategies.

Haub said governing a financing plan will be hard to sustain for decades, and an umbrella organization, such as a levy or flood protection district, could be implemented.

Above: The nine-story Capitol Center Building in downtown Olympia is reflected in Capitol Lake. The artificial lake was created in 1951 through the creation of a dam that impounds the Deschutes estuary. A hearing examiner recently approved a redevelopment project for the site that would add two new, 35 foot buildings. The proposed project is within 1,000 feet of Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake.

Clarification, February 8: Lacey Deputy Mayor is on the LOTT Board and serves as the board president.

Little Hollywood regularly writes about downtown Olympia sea level rise issues. For more articles, reports, and photos, go to Little Hollywood,, and type key words into the search button.