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Thursday, November 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Valley left neither high nor dry in county flood plan

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Snoqualmie Valley, largely under water last week, will flood again, even after King County implements a 10-year plan to reduce flood hazards around the county.

That's because the cost of keeping the valley dry — both in dollars and in environmental damage — would be too high for a lightly populated area zoned mostly for agriculture, authors of the 2006 Flood Hazard Management Plan say.

Not everyone is happy with a policy of letting nature take its course, particularly when the County Council is considering a countywide property tax to raise $18 million to $33 million a year for flood control.

The County Council already has declared its intention to create a flood-control district but isn't expected to act until early next year. County Executive Ron Sims has proposed taxing residents five cents or 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The higher tax would cost the owner of a $400,000 home $40 a year.

Sims used a visit to flooded homes and businesses in North Bend last week to reiterate his request for money to rebuild levees around the county — "many of them built of sand."

The council is now reviewing the flood plan, which lays out priorities for flood protection along rivers throughout the county.

In broad terms, the plan calls for improving levees along the Green River and dredging the lower Cedar River. If those rivers were to spill over their banks, Southcenter, downtown Renton and the Boeing 737 aircraft plant could be inundated.

On the more rural upper Cedar and Snoqualmie rivers, the county proposes to move some levees farther back so the rivers would hold more water and buy out properties that flood repeatedly.

Steve Bleifuhs, the county's river and floodplain manager and chief architect of the flood plan, said it wouldn't make sense to line the entire lower Snoqualmie with levees. He wants to avoid that "tremendous" cost by putting vulnerable homes on higher foundations or moving residents out of harm's way.

Along the Green River in Kent and Tukwila, Bleifuhs said, "We don't have a choice. We can't afford to buy everybody out, and it's a tremendous economic engine for King County." But county engineers say parts of the Green River levees are in poor shape.

County road crews this week completed emergency repairs to levees that were overtopped by high water on the South and Middle forks of the Snoqualmie River just outside North Bend. The long-term flood plan calls for setting back some South Fork levees so the river can carry more water.

Flood-control engineers are still waiting for water levels on the Green, Cedar and White rivers to drop low enough so they can see whether the inside levee walls were damaged by high waters released from dams.

The general outline of the county flood plan — use levees to channel rivers only where there are significant numbers of homes or businesses — is widely accepted. But some rural residents want more protection.

Ruth Bellamy, who has lived on a farm above the Snoqualmie River since 1950, would like to see dredging resume so the river could carry more water. "It's piled with gravel in the middle of the river so the water spills out over the banks," she says. "It can't hold nearly as much as it did."

Where small steamboats once navigated the Snoqualmie, Bellamy says, "Nowadays you can't hardly get a rowboat."

Bleifuhs said it would be difficult for the county to get permits from state and federal fisheries agencies to dredge a salmon-bearing river at a time when Puget Sound chinook are on the endangered-species list. But dredging is planned on the lower Cedar River and it is under consideration on the Snoqualmie above Snoqualmie Falls, where salmon don't spawn, Bleifuhs said.

James D. McBride Sr., who owns 42 acres of farmland on the Snoqualmie between Carnation and Duvall, and who served on the Citizens' Advisory Committee on the flood-hazard plan, believes the Lower Snoqualmie shouldn't be altered by dredging or building more levees.

"Valleys are designed to flood," McBride said. "That's nature's way. The mistake that we human beings make is the arrogance of believing that we can control rivers with levees — which we can't."

That doesn't satisfy County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, R-Redmond, who represents the Snoqualmie Valley and who thinks some dredging makes sense. "Sometimes you have to choose human safety over fish safety," she said. "I think that people's safety has got to be paramount and has got to be done in a way that is cognizant of doing as much for the fish as you possibly can."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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