How $6.2 million could be used to help fish, protect Whatcom communities from floods

Floodplains by Design aims to restore rivers and reduce flood risk

The state Legislature awarded $6.2 million to Whatcom County for its Nooksack River: Floodplains that Work project, which will restore fish habitat as well as protect farms and communities from flooding.
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The state Legislature awarded $6.2 million to Whatcom County for its Nooksack River: Floodplains that Work project, which will restore fish habitat as well as protect farms and communities from flooding.

A $6.2 million infusion of state dollars will allow Whatcom County to move forward on a project to improve habitat in the Nooksack River as well as protect farms and communities from floodwaters.

The money is part of the $50.4 million in grants the state Legislature is providing through the Floodplains by Design program, a public-private effort led by the Washington state Department of Ecology, Puget Sound Partnership and The Nature Conservancy that aims to restore the natural functions of the state’s rivers and floodplains.

Healthy floodplains are important because they provide opportunities for recreation, help improve water quality, provide rich soil for farms, provide habitat for salmon and offer protection against flooding — provided rivers have a place to go and aren’t tightly constricted, proponents said.

Flooding is expected to be a growing issue, including in the Nooksack River, because of climate change, according to a study done for the initiative that was conducted by the Climate Impacts Group.

In Whatcom County, the grant money will go toward six different tasks grouped under what’s being called “The Nooksack River: Floodplains That Work Project.”

“It’s a potpourri of different sites and the next stage of work that’s needed to move the projects forward,” said Paula Harris, river and flood manager for Whatcom County.

As with all such efforts, it brings together groups with different interests to consider the whole of the river basin.

“Often, you have a salmon recovery group doing great projects in one area and a group that’s trying to reduce erosion or flood risk in another area kind of undoing each other in another part of the river,” explained Kat Morgan, associate director of Puget Sound conservation for The Nature Conservancy.

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Whatcom County Flood Control Zone District Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

In Whatcom, the money will be used for work that will restore habitat, help salmon and protect agricultural lands, as well as communities. Specifically it will be use for:

preliminary design to improve the Ferndale levee.

final design for improvement to the Lynden levee.

land acquisition for configuration of the Reach 4 levee, which will reduce flood hazards for Deming and Nugents Corner.

land acquisition to restore the Glacier-Gallop Creek alluvial fan, which will help protect the Glacier community.

a program that will develop and add agricultural objectives into the project.

land acquisition to mitigate debris flow from Jones Creek to help protect Acme.

Harris said the projects are made possible by the Floodplains by Design program.

“It is a new opportunity for us to get sizable grants that can really advance bigger picture projects that have multiple benefits and reach and work at a larger scale,” Harris said. “It’s a pretty exciting time that the bigger money is going to be able to support our local efforts and help us implement projects that, without this influx of money, we could never do on our own.”

The project has 14 partners, including city and tribal governments, a water utility and diking district, an ag water board, as well as state transportation and fish and wildlife agencies.

Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers, said the farming community appreciated the collaborative process.

Morgan also referenced the partnership here and elsewhere.

“When communities are involved in floodplain management, everyone benefits — engineers, fishermen, tribal resource managers, farmers and anyone who enjoys Washington’s rivers,” Morgan said. “It’s a broad partnership. This is an opportunity for us all to kind of change what the future looks like and do it together.”

Learn more

Additional information is online at floodplainsbydesign.org.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.