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Why Seattle Will Stay Dry When Your City Floods

Exports from the Rainy City: Microsoft, Starbucks, and...urban climate change survival tactics?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 7:00 AM EST

One day, I went with Mark Isaacson, the director of King County's Water and Land Resources Division, to a commercial neighborhood along the Green River, a zone of low buildings separated by half-empty parking lots. It was hard to believe this was some of the most economically valuable real estate in King County. But a levee breach here, Isaacson said, would cost the local economy $46 million a day.

"Many of these buildings are warehouses that supply food and other critical goods to Seattle," he explained. "Restaurants receive 1,200 deliveries a day. Starbucks has a big distribution facility here, quite a few medical supply companies, too. If a levee broke, the roads here would be underwater, and all those deliveries would stop." The levees protected 65,000 jobs that generated $3.7 billion of income a year, Isaacson added.

Farmers had built levees along the Green River 50 to 60 years ago, said Isaacson, but those levees were little more than mounds of earth extending along the riverbanks. They were sufficient to protect farmland that could afford to flood occasionally, but inadequate when billions of dollars of commerce were at risk. Like all the departments in King County government, Isaacson's had been told by Sims to ask the climate question. Once they did, Isaacson said, "My colleagues and I knew right away that we had to upgrade our levees. The problem is, that gets really expensive. Our budget was nowhere near big enough. The only way I could see it happening was with a tax increase, but I was very reluctant to suggest that."

But when Isaacson outlined the problem, Sims didn't flinch. "Ron told me, 'We have to do it. But we have to explain to people why their taxes have to go up, why it's in their interest that these improvements get made.' And that's pretty much what happened. My staff outlined a program of levee improvements and calculated that the cost would average $40 per household in the Green River valley region. Then we reached out to mayors of towns in the valley and to the public. We had open meetings where we explained the situation. People didn't grumble much. Even towns not located right next to the river agreed to pay, because they understood that their economic well-being would suffer if the levees broke."

The tax increase, approved by the voters in 2007, increased Isaacson's budget tenfold. Instead of the $3.4 million per year he had received in the past, the flood control program was allocated $335 million over the next 10 years—monies to be used for repairing some 500 levees and revetments in the county's flood defense system.

"I can't put my head in the sand"

If the ancient tales of the Pacific Northwest are any guide, preparing against floods may be the easy part. Native peoples appear to have passed down not a single story concerning drought. But then the Pacific Northwest is famous for its frequent rains, at least west of the Cascades. The future will be different.

There will be much less water available as climate change intensifies, and as Sims saw it, the task of government was to prepare people and institutions to live with less water. "People didn't want to believe there were going to be water shortages," he recalled. "After all, this is a place where it always rains. But I said, 'This is what the science says. We have to respect it.' The reason we have so many ecological problems today is because we didn't listen to science."

In the American West, the traditional response to water shortages has been to go out and find—or steal—more of it. But the shrinkage of the snowpack makes that unlikely. In theory, reservoirs could be built to capture the snowmelt before it flows downstream and disappears into the Pacific. But most of the region's river basins already contain all the reservoirs they can accommodate.

Sims proposed a set of initiatives that respected ecological realities but upset bureaucratic tradition and popular sensibilities. Rather than seeking to increase the gross supply of water, he fought to maximize the net supply. He did so both by using forestland as a natural reservoir and, most controversially, by reusing wastewater before it was released to the sea. The latter idea provoked a fierce political battle that eventually had to be settled by the state legislature.

The morning we met, Sims took me to the site of one of the toughest fights in that battle, the Brightwater wastewater facility. The idea behind recycled water is simple: Instead of using pure water for all human purposes, why not substitute recycled water for watering golf courses, irrigating landscapes, and supplying factories? The Brightwater facility would take in wastewater, run it through filters to remove contaminants, then pump it out for delivery to non-household customers. In effect, using reclaimed water would allow the county to use the same volume of water twice.

That sounded unobjectionable except for the yuck factor: The reclaimed water had previously been used to wash people's dishes, fill their bathtubs, and flush their toilets. Sims said most people, however, got past this problem: "We explained that reclaimed water would be carefully filtered and never used for drinking, bathing, or irrigating crops." The real objections, he continued, as we drove east from Seattle, were economic. "The golf courses don't mind reclaimed water," he said. "The pushback came from water agencies that had been selling the golf courses water. One of the [agency] people asked me, 'Do you know how much money we make from golf courses?' It's money! We have to get past the question of who's making money on things and do what's right for the community as a whole."

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