Sandbags wind along the water in South Park

Roles, Responsibilities, and Resources Related to Flooding in Seattle’s South Park Neighborhood

by Alex Garland

According to a 2022 NASA report, the global sea level is rising due to human-influenced climate change, and by 2050 is expected to rise by as much as 12 inches. According to many in city, state, and federal leadership positions, that was clearly demonstrated by the flooding in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood on Dec. 27, 2022. Since a consensus is forming that the water is rising, the funding needs for short-term and long-term resilience plans are being prioritized. 

Environmental Challenges in South Park and Along the Duwamish River

The Duwamish Valley, which is located within South Park, is plagued by a host of environmental problems. A 2013 study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that residents in the area have higher rates of illness and shorter life expectancies compared with the rest of Seattle and King County, a disparity largely attributed to pollution and a lack of green space.

The king tides, or exceptionally large tides, hit Seattle about three times a year. The one in late December 2022 was joined by pre-spring snowmelt, a low-pressure system, and stormwater runoff. The overtopping by the Duwamish River was unexpected, though, says Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) CEO Andrew Lee.

“What happened was different than any of the flooding that we’ve seen for decades here,” said Lee, who shared that two SPU employees were inspecting infrastructure used to protect against sewer backups when they saw the Duwamish River overtopping the banks. “When they saw the river flooding happen, they immediately called our emergency response staff and said, ‘We’ve got a lot of water coming in.’ Again, totally unexpected.”

Seattle Public Utilities CEO Andrew Lee at t̓ałt̓ałucid (tathtathootsee) Park along the Duwamish River in the South Park neighborhood; he stands next to a row of sandbags set up to prevent flooding
Seattle Public Utilities CEO Andrew Lee at t̓ałt̓ałucid (tathtathootsee) Park along the Duwamish River in the South Park neighborhood. T̓ałt̓ałucid (tathtathootseed, “t-ahth-t-ahth-oots-eed”) translates to “where there is something overhead, across the path,” in reference to a site with timber or dead tree trunks. (Photo: Alex Garland)
A sign for t̓ałt̓ałucid (tathtathootsee) Park in South Park, in front of which stretches a tall row of sandbags
Photo: Alex Garland

Along the Duwamish River, the area around 8th Avenue and Chicago Street in the South Park neighborhood saw significant flooding, with 40 to 50 properties, according to Lee, including over 20 homes. It wasn’t just the river water from the EPA-designated Superfund site that was a concern, but also the overwhelmed sewer system in the area that caused backups in several homes.

South Park is facing mounting environmental challenges, including flooding and contamination, though SPU initially believed it would have 20 to 30 years before the area would face such issues. SPU has invested $100 million into infrastructure in the area and has plans for an additional $50 million in spending, because of the area’s history of flooding. Though Lee warns it will take time — perhaps 10 years — to fully address the issues, he stresses that the process will involve strong community partnerships, and the community’s interests will be reflected in any solutions.

Established in 2001, The Duwamish River Community Coalition (DRCC) is a community-based organization that was initially created to oversee the cleanup of the Duwamish River Superfund site. Today, the organization is dedicated to addressing environmental and justice issues in the Duwamish Valley. Its work brings attention to the intersections of environmental threats in the area, including air pollution, lack of open space, and life expectancy disparities. It is also focused on solutions that address problems of gentrification and displacement in South Park. By centering the voices of those who are most impacted, the DRCC works to ensure community needs are being met as the City invests in infrastructure improvements.

According to Paulina Lopez, the executive director of DRCC, the organization has been working with the City on better planning for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. Lopez says rising river levels have also exacerbated sewer backup problems, which have been ongoing for a long time.

As the cost of living in Seattle continues to rise, many residents of South Park feel like they are being forced out due to gentrification and displacement. To address these concerns, organizations like DRCC advocate for affordable housing solutions; likewise, the City partners with organizations and government offices, such as the Office of Housing and the Office of Planning, to find ways to meet multiple needs and provide multiple benefits to the community. 

SPU’s Lee says the City is committed to long-term investments in South Park. “We are here for the long haul on this,” he said. “Working with the community, we want to make sure that community interests are reflected in whatever we’re building.”

The City is addressing chronic infrastructure issues, such as overtopping of the river, with total investments of hundreds of millions of dollars. The $50 million project planned for this neighborhood, as well as the $100 million already invested in infrastructure improvements over the past five years, are examples of the City’s commitment to regular infrastructure improvements.

A shot of overlapping sandbags on top of decorative steps in the park
Photo: Alex Garland
A temporary flood barrier flyer attached to a tall row of sandbags
Photo: Alex Garland
Sandbags are lined up along houses and fences in the South Park neighborhood
Photo: Alex Garland

County and Statewide Solutions to Address Climate Change

King County is also taking proactive steps to prepare for the effects of climate change, particularly sea level rise, according to King County Climate Preparedness Program Manager Lara Whitely Binder. In an interview with the Emerald, Binder discussed the County’s efforts to understand the impact of sea level rise on its infrastructure, efforts that have been in progress since 2007, when the first studies were completed by the wastewater treatment division.

The County has recently updated its sea level rise mapping using new LIDAR information, and it has revised building codes on Vashon and Maury Island to include areas at risk from sea level rise and to enhance resilience along the shoreline. King County is also working with regional partners through a small technical working group focused on planning for sea level rise in the lower Duwamish area, which is a critical infrastructure area.

Binder also talked about the County’s collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on a modeling project to study changes in coastal flooding. The project, funded by the wastewater treatment division, is due to be released to the public in 2024 and will provide valuable information for decision-making.

“We’re working to increase our own internal understanding of the issues associated with sea level rise, and then we’re working with regional partners on increasing resilience,” Binder said.

Sandbags and cones line a street in South Park
Photo: Alex Garland
A Road Closed: Local Access Only sign on a street in South Park that's lined with cones and sandbags
Photo: Alex Garland

King County’s efforts to prepare for sea level rise date back to the completion of the first studies in 2007–2010 by the wastewater treatment division. With the County’s ongoing efforts to prepare for sea level rise and collaborate with regional partners, King County is taking a proactive stance on addressing the effects of climate change.

“The recent flooding is a great example of the local impacts of climate change,” said Alex Adams, senior manager of Maritime Environmental programs at Port of Seattle. The Port is taking a leadership role in addressing the problem of climate change by implementing the Northwest Ports Clean Air Strategy, with a goal of being a zero-emission seaport by 2050. It also believes it can inspire rapid change by collaborating and partnering with other organizations.

“Greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change,” said Adams. The Port says it understands the importance of reducing these emissions and has taken several actions toward this goal. One of the most effective actions it has taken so far is the use of shore power for cruise and cargo ships. “Each time a ship connects to shore power, it reduces about 32 tonnes of CO2 per call,” it states.

The Port has also invested in reducing emissions from its buildings and fleet vehicles. It has announced a partnership with Puget Sound Energy to purchase renewable natural gas and has made its fleet vehicles run on renewable diesel. It is also building partnerships with Seattle City Light to modernize the electricity grid and the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories to assess the feasibility of new fuels and energy sources, like green hydrogen.

Although the ports can’t force their tenants to adopt particular technologies, they can inspire rapid change through collaboration and partnerships. “The success of their efforts so far has mostly been through voluntary action,” Adams said, “as the ports are not a regulatory agency.”

According to Joseph Gellings, a senior planner at the Port, the issue of “sunny day flooding” is expected to be a major manifestation of rising sea levels, with water flowing in the wrong direction down drainage lines during high tides. The Port of Seattle is focused on maintaining the stormwater lines, which are the most vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise. It is monitoring and repairing these lines regularly, using robotic cameras where necessary.

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal believes the current crisis is an opportunity for the Federal government to engage with frontline communities. She told the South Seattle Emerald that the biggest opportunity is to lift up engagement with these communities and to plan better and prepare better for the future. “The king tides are a clear example of what will be faced as the climate continues to change.”

Sandbags line an alleyway in the South Park neighborhood
Photo: Alex Garland
A temporary flood barrier flyer attached to sandbags on the ground
Photo: Alex Garland
Sandbags and rocks next to water, with cranes in the distance
Photo: Alex Garland

The solution to prevent flooding in South Park is to build a berm or barrier, which will be funded by different levels of government, including SPU for drainage and wastewater. The Federal government, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Inflation Reduction Act, has allocated a significant amount of money for environmental justice funding, coastal resilience, and EPA grant funding, which may provide funds to the DRCC and other frontline community organizations. The City is also talking to the community coalition to see if there are opportunities to fund community-based projects.

The long-term plan to address the impacts of sea level rise is to invest in the development of climate-resilience-based action plans through the Climate Resilience Workforce Act. This will create an office of climate resilience and millions of climate-resilience jobs. The City Council candidates for District 1, including South Park, are also speaking out about the need for investment in the sewage and drainage systems in the area. Candidate Maren Costa said the Inflation Reduction Act provides 40% of the funds needed for these projects, and “it is the responsibility of the City and State leaders to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

The City of Seattle recommends a level of personal responsibility and strongly advocates for the creation of emergency preparedness plans. King County will host a series of public meetings in February as part of its efforts to update its flood plan for the first time in 10 years. The previous flood plans only focused on mainstem river flooding, but the new plan will also address the growing concerns of urban, coastal, and tributary flooding due to the impact of climate change. The County’s Water and Land Resources Division wants to hear from residents and workers in both urban and rural areas who are at risk of flooding or have experienced its impacts.

The updated flood plan will not only aim to reduce flood risk but also promote clean water, healthy habitat, improved recreation and open space, and sustainable agriculture through the co-benefit approach of Clean Water Healthy Habitat. Public input is crucial in shaping the County’s future approach to flood management, and the flood plan will be submitted to the King County Council for consideration in 2024.

This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).

To participate in King County’s next flood management meetings on Monday, Feb. 27, or to find out more information, visit the King County website.

To be better prepared for flood events, keep an eye on tide and weather patterns, secure valuable items by waterproofing and elevating them, and have a ready-to-go emergency bag on hand in case evacuation becomes necessary. However, it is crucial to remember that floods are just one of many potential hazards. To ensure safety and security during emergencies, everyone is encouraged to plan and prepare by visiting the City’s Emergency Management page.

Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. With a degree in emergency administration and disaster planning from the University of North Texas, Alex spent his early professional career as a GIS analyst for FEMA. Follow him on Twitter.

📸 Featured image by Alex Garland.

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