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Texas professor to analyze Kent, county Green River levee repair proposals

Robert Gilbert - Courtesy photo
Robert Gilbert
— image credit: Courtesy photo

A University of Texas at Austin professor will recommend whether the city of Kent or King County has the better millions-of-dollars plan to repair a 2.7-mile stretch of a Green River levee to provide better flood protection.

The King County Flood District Executive Committee on Monday hired Robert Gilbert, a professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, as an independent consultant to review the two vastly different proposals.

"We hope we can get some clear guidance," said Kjris Lund, executive director for the King County Flood Control District.

Kent and King County officials disagree about the right approach to fixing what's known as the Briscoe/Desimone Levee. Flood district staff couldn't decide whether a floodwall proposed by Kent or a setback levee proposed by the county would be the best choice so the executive committee decided to hire an independent reviewer to pick a plan.

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 and the Alaska Airlines Call Center.

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.

Kent staff has estimated its floodwall cost at $17 million and the county proposal for a setback levee, which would include buying property and relocating businesses, could cost more than $250 million. County staff estimates the setback levee cost at about $63 million.

According to the flood district, Kent and King County disagree about the interpretation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers guidelines for levee construction, the cost estimates for the respective proposals; the weaknesses of each proposal; and the public safety risks.

Gilbert, who joined the Texas faculty in 1993, will try to figure out who has the best plan. His recent work includes analyzing the performance of offshore platforms and pipelines in hurricanes; managing earthquake and flooding risks for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California; and performing a forensic analysis of the New Orleans levee failures after Hurricane Katrina.

"We're very excited we've got an excellent guy," Lund said. "He's an expert in risk analysis and has been in third-party roles to look at similar issues for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as well as the Texas Gulf Coast."

Gilbert submitted a 44-page resume to the flood district that includes references from the Army Corps of Engineers as well as environmental groups and private businesses.

Gilbert is expected to start work next week. He will interview officials from Kent and King County and submit a draft report by Jan. 18 and a full report to the flood district executive committee on Jan. 28. The final report is due Feb. 1.

The early 2013 deadline looms because the state has awarded a grant of $7 million to the district 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.

The flood district will pay Gilbert $25,000, which includes $4,200 in travel expenses, Lund said. Gilbert will make a trip this fall to visit with Kent and King County officials and then return next year to present his report to the full King County Flood District Board of Supervisors, which is composed of the nine members of the King County Council. The flood district executive committee includes four members of the county council.

Gilbert submitted the only proposal to the flood district to get the consultant contract. The flood district emphasized that anyone that had done work with Kent or King County could not submit a proposal because of a potential conflict of interest, which eliminated the many consultants that have worked on levee projects over the last several years.

"The flood district is in the middle of this," Lund said. "We're trying to be impartial and make the best decision."

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