More than 100 people gathered in the pouring rain to watch the waters of Budd Inlet at the bottom of Puget Sound creep near the top of Percival Landing during a 17-foot tide. It was the type of high tide that happens a few times a year now, but will become more frequent in downtown Olympia, if sea level rise projections hold true. Steve Bloom The Olympian
More than 100 people gathered in the pouring rain to watch the waters of Budd Inlet at the bottom of Puget Sound creep near the top of Percival Landing during a 17-foot tide. It was the type of high tide that happens a few times a year now, but will become more frequent in downtown Olympia, if sea level rise projections hold true. Steve Bloom The Olympian

Politics & Government

Rising sea levels could leave downtown Olympia under water. Can it be saved?

By Amelia Dickson

June 30, 2017 10:00 PM

Imagine a downtown Olympia that floods 20 to 30 times a year, blocking emergency corridors, soaking the Farmer’s Market and drenching the Olympia Transit Center.

Storm drains would likely back up, with water from Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet pouring onto city streets.

If sea levels rise even a foot, this would likely be the reality, according to city officials. And according to a National Resource Council study, Olympia will see a significant sea level rise within the next 13 to 83 years.

The study, conducted in 2012, predicts a sea level rise of as much as 9 inches by the year 2030, as much as 19 inches by the year 2050, and up to 56 inches — that’s about 4.6 feet — by the year 2100.

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“We see this as a very important community issue,” said Andy Haub, water resources director for the city’s public works department. “We’re vulnerable and the time is now.”

The city is partnering with the Port of Olympia and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance to create a sea level rise plan. The agencies enlisted the help of AECOM, a national firm with offices in Seattle. Haub said the company is on the forefront of planning that will reduce the severity of sea level rise, and have worked with other cities, including San Francisco and Miami Beach, that are facing a similar future.

The three agencies will pay AECOM $250,000 for the work, which is scheduled to take place over 18 months. The city of Olympia will foot $100,000 of the bill, with the port and LOTT each contributing $75,000.

The area of study stretches from the Fourth Avenue Bridge, through downtown to East Bay Drive. The peninsula extending from downtown is included, as is the northeastern shore of Capitol Lake.

Sea level rise is expected to cause more frequent and widespread flooding in Olympia's downtown. Amelia

Why downtown?

The makeup of downtown Olympia makes it particularly vulnerable to flooding, Haub explained.

“Water will potentially spread through downtown Olympia very easily,” Haub said. “It’s built on fill material dredged from Budd Inlet.”

The fear isn’t necessarily that downtown would be underwater all the time, Haub said. The most likely scenario is that the area would flood more and more frequently, making necessary services inaccessible, and emergency corridors — such as Fourth Avenue and State Street — impassable.

Now, downtown experiences inconvenient, small floods one or two times a year, Haub said. But with just 1 foot of sea level rise, larger floods could occur 20 or 30 times per year. With a 3 or 4 foot rise, maintaining services downtown would be very difficult.

But the makeup of downtown makes some people ask this question: Is the area worth saving?

The questions popped up at a Tuesday meeting where Haub and Susan Clark, a senior planner with the city, laid out the scope of the work. Three people in the audience contended that taxpayer money could be better spent.

“There has been a lot of talk about dikes and dams, and that’s expensive,” Lee Rimer said. “We should move the city center and save our tax money for other things.”

Rimer said she’s lived in town for about 30 years, and she’s concerned about the number of building permits the city is issuing downtown ahead of creating this plan. Ultimately, the city should buy out all of the downtown business owners and retreat from the area, she said.

There are city ordinances in place that would help protect new construction. For example, one ordinance mandates that all new construction — both residential and non residential — must have its lowest floor constructed at least one foot higher than the base flood elevation.

Base flood elevation is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standard when it comes to planning for flooding. The agency defines it as the elevation water is anticipated to reach during a so-called 100-year flood — a flood that has a 1 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded in any given year.

Olympia resident Greg Griffith said abandoning downtown would be a mistake. In losing the downtown area, Olympia would lose not only a business district and essential services, but the city’s heritage.

“We need to maintain the valuable elements of our heritage for future generations,” Griffith said at a Friday informational meeting on sea level rise hosted by the Olympia Downtown Association. “Olympia is our town. We’re standing in a historic district.”

Todd Cutts, director of the ODA, said the area is worth protecting. He said business owners are just becoming aware of the risk of sea level rise — but more education is needed.

“I do appreciate the city’s efforts, and that they’re taking this seriously,” Cutts said.

Abandoning downtown isn’t being considered in the project, Haub said. The city, port and LOTT have identified it as a valuable asset, and they’ll work hard to preserve it.

“Retreat might be a question for future generations, but right now we’re committed to downtown,” Haub said.

A rendering of what the Olympia Farmers Market would look like during a flood following a 4-foot sea level rise.
City of Olympia Courtesy

What will the study include?

During the study, the community, agencies and AECOM will inventory downtown assets, noting their environmental, social and financial values. The assets will include both infrastructure and non-infrastructure, Clark said.

“We will rely on the community for coming up with these assets and determining their value,” Clark said.

Then, the vulnerability of the assets will be assessed, taking into account how often they are projected to be flooded, and what would happen if they flooded.

The assets will be prioritized by measuring the likelihood and consequences of flooding. For example, a hospital that floods twice a year would take priority over a parking lot that floods 100 times a year, Clark said.

From there, the agencies and AECOM will come up with strategies to protect local assets. The strategies could include structural improvements, as well as tide gates in the storm water drains that lead to Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet. Design features such as raised landscaping and planter boxes could serve as barriers to water, Clark said.

Ultimately, some of the city’s streets will need to be elevated — particularly those near Capitol Lake. The man-made lake would likely be a source of flooding whether it’s kept as a lake, or allowed to revert to an estuary. The lake’s future is currently being studied and debated.

“Capitol Lake is an area of vulnerability,” Haub said. “No matter what happens with it, it’s going to be a player.”

LOTT will need to address the likely influx of seawater to its waste water treatment plant — which is in the heart of the affected area — as the water rises. Lisa Dennis-Perez, an environmental planner for the agency, said storm water must be treated before it is flushed into the Puget Sound, but this could be more difficult as that water mixes with salt water.

Gauging public input

The Olympia community will be able to weigh in on this work three times: this October, in January 2018, and in April 2018. Specific dates for the community workshops haven’t yet been announced.

At the first workshop, citizens will review the framework, goals and principals of the study. The stakeholders already have come up with a draft goal: “develop a formal community plan that prioritizes strategies and investments for best responding to sea rise, while protecting downtown’s economic, social and environmental values.”

In the second workshop, citizens will be invited to review draft adaptation strategies, and in the third workshop they’ll review a draft of the final plan.

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly