New levee in Orting is what region needs to reduce risk of flooding

Dikes and levees have been used for decades to protect northwest homes and businesses. But today, much of this aging infrastructure no longer protects us from floods that are growing bigger and more frequent.

The good news is there is a smart, scientific way to work with nature to protect people, property and communities.

Construction begins Thursday on a multimillion-dollar levee in Orting that will reduce the risk of floods throughout the Puyallup River Valley, create new habitat for salmon and produce more than 230 local jobs.

In building the Calistoga Setback Levee, the city of Orting and its partners are doing exactly the kind of work that the Puget Sound region needs: developing smart infrastructure that reduces the risk of storm flooding while creating other benefits such as wildlife habitat, more recreation and open space, and, ultimately, improving the overall health of Puget Sound.

In 2009, flooding on the Puyallup River forced the largest urban evacuation in state history, sending 30,000 residents of Orting, Fife, Sumner and Puyallup fleeing and threatening operations at the Port of Tacoma as well as the Tacoma wastewater system.

Throughout Puget Sound, we’re seeing increased flooding, deteriorating water quality, and loss of wetlands and salmon habitat. A Pierce County Flood Control District report shows potential losses of more than $725 million, including damages to homes, businesses and infrastructure from river flooding. Public works projects that blend smart engineering with nature can reverse those trends.

The Calistoga levee is a model project. It opens up room for the river to spread out and creates open land that can absorb floodwaters so that the river is less likely to overflow and flood the town. Thanks to the flood storage provided by the newly connected floodplain, more than 4,500 residents in Orting will be safer and depleted salmon runs will get much needed help. This project will also reduce the risk for communities downstream.

Orting residents and leaders should be commended for persistence in creating a project that will benefit the region. The project has received well-deserved strong support from the Pierce County Flood Zone Control District.

Last spring, the Legislature recognized the need to be smart about floodplain restoration and appropriated $50 million for the Coordinated Investment in Puget Sound Floodplains project sponsored by The Nature Conservancy, the Puget Sound Partnership, and many local and regional partners. The Calistoga/Orting project is one of nine groundbreaking flood-risk and restoration projects in the floodplains of Puget Sound’s major rivers that are receiving some of their funding through this initiative.

By funding these multiple benefits projects that reduce flood risk to people and property and provide salmon habitat and other community benefits, the Legislature has laid the foundation for building more resilient communities. Over the next year, local officials and legislators will be working to establish a long-term program to invest in projects that will make our communities safer and ensure the health of our rivers. They’ll need strong public support from all of us.

Chris Davis is the Puget Sound conservation director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington. http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/washington/index.htm