Mitigation Matters: Policy Solutions to Reduce Local Flood Risk
This brief is one of 13 that examine state and local policies that have resulted in actions to mitigate flooding.
Washington state is taking a holistic approach to mitigating flood risk. Having spent millions in past decades on disconnected strategies, the legislature in 2013 supported a partnership formed that year by several nonprofit groups, the state Department of Ecology, and other stakeholders to address the root causes of flooding: the manipulation of Washington’s rivers and development in flood plains.
The partnership’s initiative, called Floodplains by Design (FbD),1 takes a collaborative approach to projects such as moving levees, reconnecting flood plains to their rivers, and acquiring land to relocate residents away from flood hazards. Since 2013, FbD has distributed more than $115 million in grants to cities, tribal governments, and other private and public entities for flood plain projects, with an additional $50 million approved for the 2019-21 cycle.
Flooding worsens as priorities clash
Washington is still suffering the consequences of well-intended but flawed decisions decades ago to straighten and dredge waterways, levee riverbanks, and line them with concrete to allow for residential, commercial, and agricultural development in flood plains.2 Besides degrading natural habitats, these actions have contributed to costly floods in some communities.
The construction in these sensitive areas has been one result of population growth. For example, Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, receives about 4,000 new residents every month.3 But building in flood plains has made new homes vulnerable to water spilling over river banks in heavy storms. And the construction itself has worsened flooding because concrete and other materials impede the natural absorption of rainfall and river water. In addition to spending to help their city or town recover from floods, local governments have borne the expense of maintaining levees.4
Just as homes built near rivers have been threatened by floods, so too have Washington’s agricultural interests. Crops planted near rivers have been oversaturated when the rivers spilled their banks.5
Actions such as armoring river banks, including in Snohomish County, have also degraded key salmon habitats. Restoring flood plains to their natural condition is a top concern among many Native American tribes, who rely on fish for their sustenance and their livelihoods. Moreover, the lands and rivers are part of their culture, history, and daily life.6
Washington has spent millions to restore these important habitats, but the projects have been too small and disconnected to significantly repopulate fish. Relationships among farmers, tribes, and others working to protect salmon have been tense. Each group pursued siloed solutions that sometimes ignored the interests of other groups.
Adding to these problems, watersheds throughout the state have received more rain in recent years, leading to more water volume and severe flooding.
This phenomenon contributed to one of the worst floods in the state’s history. In January 2009, a Pacific storm struck western Washington for three days, causing most rivers, urban storm systems, and small streams to flood, some to record levels. Landslides and mudslides closed major roads and highways. Almost 500 homes were destroyed or badly damaged, with costs exceeding $72 million, and more than 44,000 people were evacuated.7
Politicians support a unified vision
Past strategies to restore habitats and mitigate flood risk were pursued independently, straining resources with minimal results. Local governments, tribes, and other stakeholders realized that a unified approach to addressing flooding and related issues would maximize resources and boost efforts to restore flood plains.8
In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Estuary Program to The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a nongovernmental organization, to support this vision for improving flood plain management in the Puget Sound region.9 TNC used the grant to create the concept for Floodplains by Design (FbD), a partnership with the Washington Department of Ecology and another state agency, the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP), to integrate flood plain management efforts.
After FbD asked state lawmakers for support, the legislature authorized $44 million in 2013 for the partnership to fund projects based on the concept.10 Since then, FbD has also received financial support from other federal agencies, private industries, and other nonprofit groups and has collaborated with many local partners,11 including conservation districts, NGOs, and tribal governments.
Expansion to a statewide program
FbD uses grants to achieve two complementary goals: first, to balance the related priorities of reducing flood risk, helping ecosystems in flood plains to recover, and maintaining or improving agricultural production, water quality, open space, and recreation; and, second, to better coordinate public funding for these flood plain efforts. Eligible grant applicants include local governments, tribes, port and flood control zone districts, municipal corporations, and nonprofits.
When it was launched in 2013, FbD’s scope was limited to the Puget Sound region, and the Department of Ecology managed grants and projects.12 The next year, during its first competitive grant round, the partnership expanded its efforts statewide because of its initial success.
Through 2018, more than $115 million in grants has gone toward restoring rivers and associated flood plains, letting the rivers flow where they are naturally inclined, and removing the engineered systems—dams, for example—that are no longer operating effectively.13 The new projects have included removing levees; integrating plants for erosion control and to restore habitat; installing logjams and other structures in rivers to improve fish habitat and reduce water speed during storms; and buying at-risk properties and using the land to trap floodwater.
In Snohomish County, FbD has funded projects to restore the natural state of the flood plain, such as removing dikes to restore critical estuaries, and studies to understand flood patterns and habitat vulnerabilities.14 Representatives of the EPA and other federal agencies worked with state and local officials, as well as tribes and other stakeholders, to coordinate priorities and develop best practices to integrate resources.
In 2016, a federal interagency climate committee recognized the collaborative work as one of seven “resilient lands and waters partnerships.”15 It’s now serving as a model for integrated strategies to promote natural ecosystems and reduce flood risk.16 In 2019, the state approved two additional projects for Snohomish County on the two rivers: the Stillaguamish and the Snohomish.17
Orting uses FbD grant to remove levees, restore habitat
For years, the small city of Orting, southeast of Tacoma, was vulnerable to flooding from the Puyallup River, which borders one side of it. More than a century ago, officials from Orting and other cities had straightened the river channel and built 52 miles of levees along its banks.18 But decades later, the river frequently topped the levees, which were designed for lower water flows.19
After flooding in 2006 and 2009, officials grappled with ways to alleviate the city’s flood risk. They considered widening the river, despite the possible harm the action might have on salmon populations and the river’s water quality. Through FbD, they saw the potential for flood control mechanisms that could have a positive impact on both sources of concern. In 2013, FbD gave the city a $5.7 million grant for a project to achieve these aims, leveraging additional funds from the Washington Department of Ecology, Salmon Recovery Funding Board, and Pierce County Flood Control District for a total of $17 million.20
The city of Orting began work in March 2014, removing 5,700 feet of levees and installing 1.5 miles of setback levees. It also dug a new 4,000-foot side channel to the Puyallup River to provide ample room for excess water to flow during heavy rains.21 In addition, the project restored 55 acres of wildlife habitat, benefiting salmon populations and re-creating the natural barrier that had soaked up river water in the past.
It didn’t take long for these efforts to be tested. In November of that same year, the river rose to levels that had previously caused flooding—but this time the city was spared.22 The new system has worked to better protect the city from flooding ever since.
Although FbD has received significant support from its partners, fully restoring flood plains and salmon habitats over 10 to 20 years throughout the state would cost at least $3 billion—far exceeding the initiative’s resources.23 FbD is searching for more funding sources to achieve this aim.24
The partnership said that project planning is particularly under-resourced. It has been directing some money for this purpose from outlays it received from a state fund dedicated to construction projects. This gap is magnified because many communities have few resources for planning, building rapport with other stakeholders, and establishing a vision for sustainable flood protection.
The Department of Ecology’s Flood Control Assistance Account Program, begun in 1984, had helped to fund planning efforts,25 but the state ended it in 2017. The department is working to obtain more funding for this program from other sources.26
The Washington Legislature approved $50.4 million for 2019-21 for proposed projects overseen by FbD.27 State officials believe that the partnership will be around for years to come, as its holistic approach is the “new way of doing business.”28
“Mitigation Matters: Policy Solutions to Reduce Local Flood Risk” examines policies in 13 locations: Arkansas; Brevard, North Carolina; Fort Collins, Colorado; Indiana; Iowa; Maryland; Milwaukee; Minnesota; Norfolk, Virginia; South Holland, Illinois; Vermont; Washington state; and Wisconsin.
- Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design,” accessed July 30, 2019, http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/.
- Floodplains by Design, Shorelands and Environmental Assistance Program, “Floodplains by Design: Report to the Legislature” (2019), https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/documents/1906004.pdf.
- Floodplains by Design, “Planting Seeds of Collaboration—Stillaguamish River Valley,” http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/storiesstillaguamish/
- Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design: Toward a New Paradigm, Integrated Floodplain Management Status Report” (2018), http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Toward-a-New-Paradigm_IFM-Status-Report_Final_highlights_ compiled.pdf.
- Floodplains by Design, “Planting Seeds of Collaboration: Stillaguamish River Valley,” accessed Nov. 2, 2018, http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/stories-stillaguamish/.
- National Weather Service, “Flooding in Washington,” accessed Dec. 2, 2018, https://www.weather.gov/safety/flood-states-wa.
- Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design: A New Approach to Managing River Corridors in Puget Sound” (2014), http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/FbD-FINAL-REPORT-Sept2014.pdf.
- S. McKinney, Floodplains by Design Grant Program Lead, email to Caroline Whitehead, Dewberry, Nov. 17, 2018.
- Washington Department of Ecology, “Floodplains by Design: Report to the Legislature.”
- Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design: A New Approach to Managing River Corridors,” http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/wpcontent/uploads/2017/07/FbD-FINAL-REPORT-Sept2014.pdf.
- Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design: Toward a New Paradigm, Integrated Floodplain Management Status Report.”
- Stillaguamish Tribe, “2017-2019 Floodplains by Design Project Preliminary Proposal” (2016).
- U.S. Department of the Interior, “DOI, EPA, NOAA Announce Resilient Lands and Waters Initiative to Prepare Natural Resources for Climate Change,” news release, April 26. 2016, https://www.doi.gov/news/pressreleases/doi-epa-noaa-announce-resilient-lands-andwaters-initiative-to-prepare-natural-resources-for-climate-change; National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, “The Resilient Lands and Waters Initative” https://www.noaa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/DOCUMENT%20_Resilient%20Lands%20and%20Waters%20Final%20Report-111516%20%281%29.pdf (2016).
- National Fish, Wildlife and Plants, “The Resilient Lands and Waters Initative.”
- Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design: Toward a New Paradigm.” Floodplains by Design, “Floodplains by Design: Toward a New Paradigm, Integrated Floodplain Management Status Report”
- Floodplains by Design, “Planting Seeds of Collaboration—Stillaguamish River Valley.”
- J. Pestinger, “Guest: A New Way to Tame Rivers Is Better for Humans and Salmon,” news release, Feb. 11, 2015, https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/guest-a-new-way-to-tame-rivers-is-better-for-humans-and-salmon/.
- C. Dunagan, “Floodplain Projects Open Doors to Fewer Floods and More Salmon,” Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, last modified April 11, 2017, accessed Jan. 20, 2019, https://www.eopugetsound.org/magazine/is/floodplain-projects.
- Pestinger, “Guest: A New Way to Tame Rivers Is Better for Humans and Salmon.”
- Floodplains by Design, “Vision, Strategies and Actions for Puget Sound Major River Floodplains” (2016), http://www.floodplainsbydesign.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/FbD-Vision-and-Strategies-2016-report.pdf.
- State of Washington Department of Ecology, “Flood Control Assistance Account Program (FCAAP),” accessed Dec. 2, 2018, https://ecology.wa.gov/About-us/How-we-operate/Grants-loans/Find-a-grant-or-loan/Flood-control-assistance.
- S. McKinney, Floodplains by Design grant program lead, email to Caroline Whitehead, Dewberry, Nov. 17, 2018.
- State of Washington Department of Ecology, “Floodplains by Design Grant Program,” accessed July 30, 2019, https://ecology.wa.gov/Water-Shorelines/Shoreline-coastal-management/Hazards/Floods-floodplain-planning/Floodplains-by-Design.
- McKinney, email.