Leaders want funds for Puyallup flood study

By:  Rob Hotakainen
Source: The News Tribune

WASHINGTON – Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell wants Pierce County to be ready for the sort of flood that hit in November 2006, when more than 18 inches of rain fell in Mount Rainier National Park in less than 36 hours and 1,500 people had to be evacuated from their homes in the Puyallup River basin.

Cantwell and other members of the Washington state congressional delegation say they need the federal government to help pay for an emergency plan. And without such help, they say, it will never happen.

But President Barack Obama’s new budget carries bad news for the project: It includes no new money for the Puyallup River study in 2013.

With many projects around the nation in the mix, “we had to make some tough choices, and it just didn’t compete,” Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for civil works, told reporters during a news conference in Washington, D.C., last week.

Despite the setback, Cantwell and others are promising to push ahead and try to get Congress to override the president’s recommendation.

“Thousands of jobs in Pierce County depend on minimizing flood risk and protecting vital resources,” said Cantwell through a spokesman, adding that she’s “concerned” that Obama chose to overlook the project.

She said 19 local entities already have put up $500,000 in matching funds to pay for the study, which would aim to address what needs to be done to protect the region.

The Puyallup River basin, which includes the Puyallup, Carbon and White rivers, covers more than 1,000 square miles and is home to roughly 280,000 people. The rivers begin on Mount Rainier and eventually flow into Commencement Bay in Tacoma.

The flooding more than five years ago caused more than $40 million in damage to private property. It forced Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire to declare a state of emergency in 18 counties.

Part of Interstate 5, the major north-south corridor for the West Coast, had to shut down.

And the Mount Rainier park didn’t reopen for six months, its longest closure since World War II.

A study conducted for Pierce County by an outside consulting firm in 2010 found that another big flood in the county could cost as much as $725 million. And the region got another reminder of the potential for danger when the National Weather Service in Seattle issued a flood warning for the river this week.

Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said in an interview local officials want “to ensure that we’re not closing down freeways or we aren’t going to have loss of property or life because of a catastrophic flood.” She said the study should be done because the area, including the Port of Tacoma, is a regional hub and that a disaster would be felt well beyond its borders.

“We know that we can’t do it alone just with local dollars, so we really do need some federal support,” McCarthy said.

“The impact for us, if we did have a catastrophic flood, would be tremendous — and it wouldn’t be just impacting Pierce County.”

In October, Cantwell and three members of the state’s congressional delegation – Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks and Adam Smith – wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, warning that “a comprehensive solution” to the flooding would require federal support, even though there’s plenty of local backing for the project.

“Without that federal commitment, adequate flood control on the Puyallup River will not take place,” they said in the letter, adding that “we understand the difficulties of our fiscal environment.”

After the president released his budget earlier this month, Reichert warned that, “The economic and human impact of a significant Puyallup River flood would be catastrophic.” And he said he would work with the Army Corps on the project “to ensure that it is addressed.”

“The need for continued study and flood control is vital to homes, businesses, regional transportation systems and the Port of Tacoma,” Reichert said in a statement.

George Behan, Dicks’ chief of staff, noted that the Corps allocated $450,000 for the project for the 2012 fiscal year and said the state’s delegation “will certainly urge the Corps to maintain the level of effort” in 2013.

And Smith said he was “disappointed that this project did not end up in the president’s budget,” but pleased that the Army Corps had acknowledged the importance of the project by funding it this year.

He said the project remained “atop the Army Corp’s priorities.”

McCarthy said planning for the project began in 2008, when the county created the Puyallup River Executive Task Force. It includes representatives from Pierce County, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the Port of Tacoma, King County, the Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Transportation and the Tacoma-Pierce Chamber of Commerce.

If the project is funded, plans call for the study to continue over six years. McCarthy said the time frame is set by the federal government, not local officials, and that when discussions first began, a 10-year study had been proposed.

“I about had a heart attack,” she said. “But they’ve shortened it now to six years, which is a good thing. It’s less, but it is a long time to do a study.”