Kent, King County dispute best millions-of-dollars fix for Green River levee

Mike Mactutis, city of Kent environmental engineering manager, stands along the Briscoe Levee on the Green River. City and King County officials disagree on the best way to repair the levee for better flood protection. - STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter
Mike Mactutis, city of Kent environmental engineering manager, stands along the Briscoe Levee on the Green River. City and King County officials disagree on the best way to repair the levee for better flood protection.
— image credit: STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter

A controversial dispute continues to heat up between the city of Kent and King County about the best way to spends millions of dollars to repair a 2.7-mile stretch of a Green River levee to improve flood protection.

The two sides are so far apart about whether a floodwall proposed by Kent or setback levee proposed by the county would be the best choice that the King County Flood Control District decided to hire a third-party consultant to recommend by early next year whether the city or the county has the right approach to fixing what's known as the Briscoe/Desimone Levee.

The levee stretches from South 200th Street to South 180th Street in north Kent and according to Kent officials protects from flooding about 18,400 jobs at a variety of businesses in Kent, Tukwila and Renton, including the Boeing Space Center, the Starbucks Roasting Plant, IKEA, Alaska Airlines Call Center and the Puget Sound Blood Center’s Scofield Memorial Laboratory.

The levee also protects Burlington Northern and Union Pacific Railroads, State Highway 167 and State Route 181, Puget Sound Energy’s electrical transmission lines and an Olympic gasoline pipeline.

The debate fired up city officials when they found out the King County Flood Control District Executive Committee (composed of four members of the King County Council) approved last month buying 3.3 acres in Kent known as River's Edge, including three commercial buildings next to the Briscoe Levee, as part of the setback levee proposal.

"We need to raise awareness that the district is taking on a luxury project," said Kent City Council President Dennis Higgins about the land purchase at a recent city Public Works Committee meeting. "This will delay levee repairs that avert our warehouse district from flooding. This is the height of absurdity."

Kent staff has estimated its floodwall cost at $17 million and the county proposal for a setback levee could cost more than $250 million. County staff estimates the setback levee cost at about $63 million.

Kent Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson agreed with Higgins at the meeting.

"They purchase land for a setback plan when we need to shore up what we have," Albertson said. "I was dismayed and shocked when I heard this. We need to protect our asset. The money needs to be used on flood control. The problem with purchasing land is it's not addressing imminent needs."

County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, whose district includes Kent, defended the decision by the flood district executive committee to direct staff to move forward with negotiations to buy the 3.3 acres. She serves on the flood district executive committee, which reports to the King County Flood District Board of Supervisors (composed of all nine members of the County Council).

"The property is for sale and we had a willing seller," Patterson said during a phone interview. "If we do not buy it now, it'd either be a higher price later or not available. If the consultant (to be hired) decides Kent is right, we can put the property back on the market. In all reality, we'd probably make a profit."

The River's Edge land is assessed at $3.9 million by the King County tax assessor. No final sale price has been agreed upon yet, although a letter from local mayors against the purchase describe it as a "nearly $5 million transaction."

Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke, Renton Mayor Denis Law, Tukwila Mayor Jim Haggerton and Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis sent a letter Sept. 7 to the flood district executive committee after the property acquisition vote.

"We request that the decision to move ahead with this nearly $5 million transaction - which represents more than half of the annual budget allocated to Green River levees - be suspended," the mayors wrote in the letter.

The mayors favor serious consideration by the flood district board of the floodwall proposal because it is less expensive and could be completed in one year.

Floodwall or setback levee

The city has spent about $713,000 (from its storm water utility fund) over the last two years on three engineering consultant companies (Boston-based GEI Consultants, Inc., GeoEngineers, Inc., of Seattle and Northwest Hydraulics, of Tukwila) in connection with Briscoe Levee repairs. GEI and GeoEngineers each recommended a steel sheet pile floodwall be constructed along the levee to improve flood protection. The city estimates the project would cost about $17 million and could be completed in one year. About 4,000 feet of the levee would be repaired in four segments.

The project is part of a larger effort by Kent to have the entire levee system within city limits accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to remove properties behind the levee from FEMA flood maps to reduce development restrictions and flood insurance requirements in the Kent Valley.

City officials put aside funds the last two years from the storm water drainage utility fee to pay for the consultants. City revenue from the storm water fund comes from residential customers who pay a flat rate of $10.06 per month and from commercial storm drainage fees that vary based on property size, percentage of impervious surface and the basin in which the property is located.

County officials prefer a setback earthen levee that involves buying up large amounts of commercial and industrial property to allow the river to flow more naturally and provide a wider corridor for water in flood events. The county estimates costs for the levee setback range up to $63 million and will take up to 20 years to complete.

The levee debate involves the King County Flood Control District in addition to Kent and King County.

The County Council created the flood control district in 2007 as a countywide special purpose district to oversee the six major river systems that flow through King County. Those rivers are the South Fork Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Sammamish, Cedar, Green and White Rivers. The district is responsible for planning and funding maintenance and repairs of the flood control system.

After its formation, the flood district board adopted a new property tax assessment of 10 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to fund projects. That tax brings in about $35 million per year.

The flood district also includes an Advisory Committee composed of about 15 members from cities that have experienced significant flooding. Many of the members are city mayors.

Dispute unexpected

Typically, Kent has worked smoothly with the flood district in other levee projects as well as receiving funding from the district to pay for the placement and removal of sandbags along the Green River during the past three years when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the Howard Hanson Dam. The flood district spent about $2.5 million to install sandbags in Kent and $1.2 million to remove the sandbags, according to county officials.

Crews are installing a floodwall now along the Boeing Levee in Kent. That $2.7 million project includes a $2 million state grant to the city through the flood district.

"We've spent millions of dollars in Kent and other places and have never had a complaint before," Patterson said about the Briscoe Levee dispute.

Mike Mactutis, city environmental engineering manager who helps oversee levee projects, said the city partners with the flood district and county on projects. But he said the flood district had no policy as far as getting the levees accredited by FEMA, so the city took that project on itself by hiring consultants to assess the levees and what repairs are needed. The flood district now has a policy to meet FEMA requirements.

Mactutis agreed with Patterson that the city and county worked smoothly together in the past.

"I've worked with them quite a few years and worked well," Mactutis said. "This is just a difference of opinion on the floodwall and the short term versus the long term. Our priority is the short term to bring areas of the system up to the 100-year flood protection."

Because of the dispute with the county about how to fix the Briscoe Levee, Mactutis said city officials decided to hire a second consultant to look at the project as well.

"We wanted to make sure we were doing the right thing," Mactutis said as he stood atop the Briscoe Levee. "There was so much concern if the floodwall was safe that we had GEI (consultants) do a second report."

Levee protects businesses

The Briscoe Levee also sits as one of the most vital levees for flood protection in the valley.

"The one levee protects a huge area of Kent, Tukwila and Renton," Mactutis said. "We need to make sure we're doing this correctly."

Besides the three-city impact, just adjacent to the 4,000 feet of city-proposed repairs there are 11 parcels with more than 540 jobs, 470,000 square feet of building space, and more than $44 million in assessed value, according to Kent officials.

Joseph Wartman, a University of Washington civil engineering professor who serves on the citizen’s advisory committee for the King County Flood Hazard Management Plan update, reviewed the Briscoe Levee floodwall and levee setback proposals in April for the county.

Wartman, who did not analyze project costs, concluded that the levee setback would be the preferred option.

"Overall, it is my opinion that from both a technical and broader flood management perspective the setback scheme is preferable to the floodwall option," Wartman wrote in his report.

Wartman called both plans "technically viable." But he said the setback option "offers a number of practical benefits for long-term management and operations of the levee system."

The floodwall system, Wartman wrote, "will stabilize critical portions of the existing levee system, but will not reduce toe erosion (slides) or long-term maintenance costs."

Patterson said as a board member it's difficult to determine who is right.

"We have experts on one side who say do one thing and experts on the other side who say do another thing," Patterson said. "We are hiring a consultant from the outside who does not have ties to Kent or King County. They will come back with a recommendation."

Kent officials hope the third-party consultant chooses the city's proposal.

"Our hope is the third party decides the floodwall is more feasible and cost effective," Mactutis said. "It can be done faster than purchasing all the businesses and relocating them."

Grant money on the line

The dispute between the county and Kent needs to be settled in order to get a $7 million state grant to repair the Briscoe Levee. The Legislature approved the grant during the last session but the grant could go away if no repair plan is established by the end of June.

Consultants must submit proposals to the county by Oct. 12 to get the contract to review the two levee proposals. County officials estimate the contract will cost between $15,000 to $19,900, according to county documents.

County staff plans to recommend a consultant to the flood district executive committee on Oct. 22. Work would begin by Nov. 1 with a draft report due by Jan. 18 and a full report to the executive committee on Jan. 28. The final report is due Feb. 1.

"That makes it really tough for us to get the project out to bid by the end of June," Mactutis said about getting the state grant money.

King County's proposal for hiring a consultant emphasizes the need to meet the state's grant deadline. Flood district staff also pointed out in the proposal the wide-ranging dispute between Kent and the county.

"The city of Kent and King County disagree about the interpretation of the Corps guidelines for levee construction, the cost estimates for the respective proposals; the weaknesses of each proposal; and the public safety risks."

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