PLANNING FOR A FUTURE FLOOD - Citizens joined Councilmembers and Mayor Ramon Hayes and town staff to get a first hand look at where a ring dike would be built as protection against a Skagit River flood from the north. - Photo by Ken Stern
Town Council members have received their summer reading assignments. They’ll start with the next chapter in the ongoing saga on how to protect La Conner from potential catastrophic Skagit River flooding. Council will study design options for a proposed ring dike at the northeast edge of town. This after a field trip and sit-down Council session last Tuesday. About two dozen people met for a site tour intended to provide a visual perspective of where a new dike section would be located and its planned elevation. “The worst of the challenge,” said Evan Henke of CHS Engineers, who led a robust 45-minute discussion, “is within our eyesight.” That area runs east and south from the Port of Skagit’s La Conner Marina to the Town’s wastewater treatment plant off Chilberg Road. Henke prepared a model showing the height a new dike would stand. “The top of it,” he said, “will be six inches above where the flood elevation is projected to be.” Two main questions emerged. The first involved the composition of the dike. The second hinged on whether to run it north or south of the ditch just beyond La Conner school district’s Whittaker Field. An earthen dike would be less expensive to construct, but costlier to maintain, Henke said. A steel sheet-piling dike will cost more to build but need less maintenance, he said. Either way, Henke said the advantage to building a new dike on the south side of the ditch is it would avoid having to install additional tide gates. He said measures are already planned to provide protection from damage by ditch debris to existing tide gates near North Third Street. Glen Johnson, who has offered yet another option – a dike plan that incorporates housing and lodging units – spoke in favor of placing the dike north of the ditch, which he said is “the proper side,” citing soil composition and other factors. Town Councilman Jacques Brunisholz has led the campaign to budget for new dike construction, which would completely ring the town, to protect La Conner against flooding if levees breach along the Skagit River near Burlington or Avon. “This is the low part of the valley,” Brunisholz said Tuesday. “This is where the water will drain to.” Brunisholz said flood protection and the prospect of building a ring dike were issues upon which he initially campaigned for Council a decade ago. “We’ve been looking at this a long time,” he said. Brunisholz views investment in the dike as insurance against a major flooding event, the chances of which are rated at one per cent per year. “It could happen next spring,” Henke said. “Or it could never happen in our lifetimes. Now you’re into Vegas odds.” When the Council reconvened at Maple Hall for its bi-weekly meeting, concerns arose over the threat of flooding not only from the Skagit River but also from Swinomish Channel. “I think the ring dike is fine,” said Planning Commissioner Linda Talman, “but I don’t know if any action is being taken to protect flooding from sea level rise along the channel. Flooding from the river is an important issue, but so is flooding from the channel.” She made her remarks while requesting the Town Council not sell the Kirsch property on La Conner’s north waterfront, a parcel that has in the past been eyed by some as a future public park. She noted that the area was once home to warehouses that stored grains harvested near La Conner, an early harbinger of today’s farm-to-table movement. “The historic value of the La Conner waterfront,” Talman said, referencing the Kirsch property, “is worth retaining.” Discussion eventually floated back to the ring dike and future courses of action. “I personally feel that the dike tour was extremely beneficial,” said Mayor Ramon Hayes. “We may not have a consensus yet, but we’re getting a clearer picture. Council member Mary Wohleb concurred. “It looks like we have more work to do,” she said. “There are couple more alternatives to be flushed out.” Other Council developments: *Brunisholz gained Council support to place on the Town’s long-range to-do list a plan to extend the waterfront boardwalk further north. *The Council, at the behest of Brunisholz, endorsed referring to the planning and arts commissions the task of developing specific criteria and code language regarding art sculptures. Brunisholz questioned the height of a new art piece recently installed at Fifth and Morris. “If a piece of art is taller than a human,” he said, “that’s imposing. If it’s shorter than me, I’m not impressed.” The Planning Commission conditionally approved the sculpture, “Wings,” requiring coordination with the Town Public Works Department and review by a structural engineer. There were two planning commission meetings addressing the sculpture, one of which included a public hearing that was advertised with a legal notice in the Weekly News, and property owners within 300 feet were notified. No one attended the hearing and no comments were submitted.