Tag Archive: floodplain

In a nation where-yes, even now in 2016- many of us still have choices in life, you might be wondering why someone would make this choice.  Why anyone would sign up for this.

Maybe the house knows the answer. It has been standing since 1908, watching people come and go, live and die. The house has stood through flood, massive windstorms, and earthquakes.  It was perched on piles before being placed on a foundation and surrounded with fill from the abandoned Northern Pacific Railway line. It was abandoned at one point. The house survived the local dike wars and soldiers leaving for two world wars and the Vietnam War.


Before my time- the 1995 dike breach in front of my gate

Every November, I wonder if I’ve lost my mind, or maybe lost the courage to face one more flood season.  I obsessively watch the weather for the trifecta:  A typhoon near Asia, warm winds coming up from Hawaii, and the jet stream pressing down on us.  Add an unconsolidated snowpack in the Central Cascades, and voila! You have an atmospheric river, and a major  flood in the Snohomish River Valley, overtopping farmer engineered dikes and sweeping across the fields.

I’ve been through two major floods:  the Great Pumpkin flood of December 2006 and the January 2009 flood.  Now, the locals said neither of these should have happened. Once you get past Thanksgiving you’re okay, they said.  Ya sure, as we would have said in Minnesota.  Ya sure.greatpumpkinflood2

I watched the 2006 flood from across the valley, my horses safely ensconced in a boarding barn atop the hill.  The flood hit at the end of pumpkin season, before they were tilled into fields.  I would walk to the bottom of the hill and peer across the water, trying to see if my foundation was still dry.  The first night water filled the valley I stood and listened.  I could hear fins and tails slapping through the waters:  salmon on their way to spawn swept into the fields with no way out after it was over.  The pumpkins bobbed along illuminated by the neighbor’s farm light, with dark blobs on top.  When my eyes adjusted, I realized the blobs were rodents riding the pumpkins like rafts.  Then I saw the owls. I counted eight-great horned, screech, barn- swooping down to grab rodents from the pumpkins.

When I returned home after the storm swept away, I drove past a pack of coyotes stretched out on the dike in the sun, bellies round with rodents.  Waiting for the rising waters to run rodents toward your waiting jaws is a risk, but if you’re a coyote, maybe you’re a born gambler.  A muskrat was in the barn, with the water line not very far behind.

The 2009 flood was harder.  My hip was deteriorating and getting horses out and sandbags down was no joy.  I had a little help, but preparations were slow and I drove out as the water was slowly starting to pool on the road. It’s the first time I heard the river’s voice change.  It started out high-pitched as water splashed and spilled over tree limbs bobbing in the water.  Then octaves tumbled as deep, rolling boils swirled like watery tornadoes.

This flood threatened to be worse than 2006, and I wasn’t sure the dikes would hold.  I stayed in a hotel. My neighbors, who ride these events out at home, walked the dikes and sent reports.

The dikes held, with some calving, caving, boils, and piping. Julie got some great photos flying the river in Bunky’s float plane.  More than the post-breach picture of Mary posing at the gate,  Julie’s photos cemented my resolve to leave in large floods.


The barn and house are left, located between overtopping dikes and inundated fields.


Overtopping behind barn, horse paddocks at right.

Because I’m the downstream property, I get everyone’s debris: plywood, power poles from a replacement project, prescription bottles, dead pigs, and this unfortunate victim:



Cleanup reminds me why I live here, as I watch a young heron slowly stepping through the pooled water behind the house, catching worms.  The raptors have arrived in droves, and I watch a bald eagle and hawk lock talons and roll in the sky. The County piles up road debris 8 feet high , and as I’m walking by at night, I see a dozen owls perched on the mound, waiting for more rodent meals.


I moved here for nature and privacy.  It’s obvious why this area doesn’t get developed, and I’ve got nature at its most rhythmic and normal, oblivious to whatever stuff we put in its way. The river is a voice thousands of years old reminding me that belongings are transitory, along with human life.  It’s about living in the moment, feeling the place.

Sure, I’d rather trade the growling bass tones of a rising river for the gentle honking of trumpeter swans, the barking of snow geese, the spring chorus of frogs. But they wouldn’t be here if the river wasn’t here, and the river owns this valley once in a while. Maybe it’s a good reminder as I face another winter that we are ephemeral, no matter how mighty and eternal we believe we are.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


In the Pacific Northwest, fall brings windstorms and rain, sometimes in torrents.  If the jet stream from Asia lines up just right and picks up moisture from typhoons or other sources, an “atmospheric river” forms; meterologists describe it as a “firehose” when the mountains stall the front and  rain dumps continuously.  We’ve experienced two of these, one with a serious windstorm. Since resulting flooding occurred back-to-back, I’ll call it “round one”.

Flooded road and trooper of a fir tree

Flooded road and trooper of a fir tree

We survived round one despite crumbling dikes that bulged in seams indicating seeping from the river to the backslope. We survived the windstorm, too, with a short power outage and a few trees affected by 60-mph windgusts that came from an different direction than usual. I found front porch railings popped and discovered at morning light that the 30 foot tall Alaska weeping cedar had begun to tip over onto a porch post, leaving a rut where the roots were lifting out of the ground on one side. I will definitely be doing some work to help that tree build new roots and to beef up any barrier to keep it from tipping onto the house!

Dikes look dry, but seeping is occurring at the base of the slope

Dikes look dry, but seeping is occurring at the base of the slop


Windgusts of 60 mph (95 km/h) from an unusual direction snapped this tree and tipped the top onto a neighbor’s roof. I usually evacuate before large floods, but with a horse suffering from deteriorating ligaments, a walk up the hill or trailer ride could exacerbate the problem, and will only happen if needed.

My reaction to these events is tempered by the sober realization that we all  signed up for this.  It’s not just that I moved to this place.  It’s that we altered this place to make it more hazardous during weather events.  We logged upstream and put in buildings and roads that shed more water into the rivers during storms. Tree canopies no longer slow the procession of rain to ground. We channelized the river, making it run faster and higher during floods.  We build “farmer engineered mountains of mud”: dikes that don’t conform to Army Corps standards, much less aspire to be the complex flood control of the Netherlands.  This was the dream of Dr. Henry Smith when he first saw the Snohomish River system:  a new Holland.  We are no Holland, but instead a patchwork of both sturdy and crumbling dikes holding water back from homes and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure: jet fuel conveyance pipelines, massive water mains, high voltage power lines, communications cables sharing pole space with local utilities, commuter roads, and bridges.  We are a train wreck waiting to happen, a New Orleans or New Jersey waiting for the Big One.  And that other Big One- a massive earthquake expected at some time in our region- could liquefy our jello-esque dikes and send a tsunami 9 miles upstream.

Pulling a dock up before the floods take it away

Pulling a dock up before the floods take it away

So why do people live in places like this?  People live with natural hazards throughout our region because of the beauty, the diversity of activities, jobs, and the economy.  It’s a case of picking your poison:  windstorms, ice storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanoes, coastal and river flooding, even drought.  Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are rare events that pale in comparison to the intermittent massive weather and geological events that can whack us all.

People are flocking to this region:  my county is expected to absorb 200,000 more people in the next 20 years.  We will have to be a lot more proactive, get a lot more clever, and spend a lot more money to make this immigration wave work in an area that wants to blow up or just crumble into the sea.  For those of us who are already here, we’ll have to keep whistling past the graveyard and hoping for the best.



This slideshow requires JavaScript.