EVERETT — Pigeons swoop in elegant arcs above the marina, sunset glints off historic hillside houses and a tricycling boy pedals toward the edge of the Fisherman’s Harbor dock.
With so much competing for their attention, his strolling parents could easily miss a clue that the Port of Everett is adapting to climate change: The pilings that secure the new stretch of dock are taller than those at the older west end.
The additional two feet will allow the dock to float higher as global warming causes sea levels to rise. If that isn’t enough leeway to accommodate future king tides, extensions can be welded to the pointy-topped columns, said Erik Gerking, director of environmental programs for the port. While visible, the pilings at the state’s largest public marina are not his top climate change concern.
“The biggest issue that we will have involves bulkheads and shoreline – having those high enough,” he said.
Adapting to sea level rise is an obvious need at the Port of Everett. But there are many ways in which climate change can impact the public port district’s role as seaport, recreational center, business and now a housing hub. This fall, port staff raised those concerns in a climate change memorandum that Gerking presented to port commissioners.
Some of the questions raised in the memo involve the seaport’s bottom line. For example, extreme weather, fires, flooding and sea level rise are expected to hammer the U.S. economy this century. Will the drop in gross domestic product reduce the amount of goods leaving the port, which now add up to $21 billion a year? Globally, economic production is projected to decrease 23% by 2100 as compared to a world without climate change.
For now, questions about economic disruption are unanswerable, just as it’s impossible to say how high and fast the waters of Puget Sound will rise.
So far, port planners have taken a rise of 2 to 3 feet into consideration, based on University of Washington research. But Gerking’s memo explains that “this is a statistical model that requires updating as new science and data become available.” It cites a 2015 UW report that concludes sea level in Seattle could be anywhere from 4 to 56 inches higher by 2100, compared to 2000. The dramatic difference is based on the success or failure of efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
As the City of Everett’s new Climate Action Plan notes, the rate at which sea level rises in Puget Sound depends on the rate of global sea level rise and regional factors, such as currents, wind patterns, location and elevation.
There is some good news for the Port of Everett. It’s in a growth phase. Building taller steel bulkheads and wharves, to say nothing of elevating buildings, is much less expensive than adapting existing ones to rising waters.
“There’s probably some incremental cost we’re incurring in construction, but it would pale in comparison to a retrofit,” said Gerking.
The port’s Waterfront Place District was built on 3-foot-higher landscape, which hides an elevated stormwater system and utilities. The newest part of the district features Fisherman’s Harbor, under-construction apartments and the Indigo Hotel. Just beyond the hotel, a considerable hill of dirt awaits plans to elevate future buildings. In the distance, the Weyerhaeuser Building towers above the shoreside Boxcar Park. The ornate historic structure was relocated high, and hopefully dry, for its future as a marine clubhouse and entertainment venue.
The 65-acre Waterfront Place used to be the Everett Shipyard. Like former polluted industrial sites throughout the port’s 3,000 acres, it had to be cleaned up before it could be developed. Sea level adaptation is one more factor in the complex and expensive cleanup projects, six of which are still active, according to the port’s 2020 Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Report.
The 20-page report includes a quick summary of the port’s climate change strategy. It’s not called a plan, Gerking said, because a strategy is easier to update. He sees value in being nimble.
“The information, the science, the regulations evolve with time,” he said.
The strategy calls for a widespread assessment of infrastructure or properties that might be vulnerable to sea level rise. That assessment hasn’t been scheduled or funded yet.
At the port’s north end, along the Snohomish River, a former mill site has already been decontaminated and elevated 3 to 5 feet. It is now the Riverside Business Park. The same process is underway at a second former lumber site, now called Bay Wood, near the mouth of the river. Bay Wood is exposed to Puget Sound waves and wind, requiring restoration of a storm-resistant shoreline.
Researchers aren’t predicting more storm surges due to climate change, Gerking said, but higher sea level could make storm-driven waves more destructive. Meanwhile, hazards are coming from inland in the form of more intense floods caused by earlier mountain snowmelt.
Flooding erodes riverbanks. That washes sediment into the river. At low tide, a sandbar is now exposed in Port Gardner, sometimes leaving boaters stranded as they approach the port’s 10th Street docks at low tide. The obvious solution is dredging, though the Corps of Engineers is looking at ways to make that more effective as the amount of sediment coming downstream increases. Deflecting sediment from the boat launch is also being considered.
The corps regularly dredges the river to keep navigation open. One upside to that, Gerking said, is that it yields an abundance of sediment that’s clean enough to use on construction sites. For example, big piles of river sand are being used to cover and elevate the former Kimberly-Clark mill property at the south end of the port.
Reducing its own carbon footprint is part of the port’s climate strategy. That includes buying fuel-efficient heavy equipment such as forklifts. Gantry cranes — those hulking metal creatures that unload ship cargo — are powered by electricity.
Air pollutants, including the greenhouse gases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, dropped at the Port of Everett from 2005 to 2016. That’s according to emissions inventories taken by the Puget Sound Maritime Air Forum. Emission sources include everything at the waterfront, from ships to recreational boats to train locomotives.
The seaport’s South Terminal has been modernized with conduits and utility hatches that would allow ships to turn off their diesel engines and plug into the region’s clean hydropower grid. But the needed power receptacles can’t be installed yet. To the frustration of ports up and down the coast, the shipping industry has yet to announce a standard design for the giant plugs.
The port also plans to increase its short-distance sea shipping, which involves moving cargo between Puget Sound ports and Everett using tugs and barges. That approach, which is already used for aerospace parts, results in a 98% reduction in emissions over trucking cargo, Gerking said.
Also on the plus side of the port’s greenhouse gas ledger are the 377 acres of wetlands that the port owns at Union and Blue Heron sloughs in the Snohomish River estuary. The sloughs serve as conservation banks. When the port needs to make up for the loss of salmon spawning habitat caused by waterfront construction, it funds restoration efforts in the sloughs. As it turns out, wetlands do a great job of capturing and holding carbon in the soil. Better even than forests.
Greenhouse gas reduction is also on the radar at Naval Station Everett, which is sandwiched between the port’s north and south ends. According to its energy manager, Max McAllister, the base has reduced its energy use by half since 2003. It has installed solar panels, switched to mostly hybrid and electric vehicles, and replaced all lights with LEDs.
Ships at pier, usually U.S. Navy destroyers, switch to the power grid when in port. When it comes to sea level rise, 2019 federal law requires it be taken into consideration during building design, but no construction is planned at the 26-year-old base.
Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber sees climate change adaptation as a decades-long effort that needs to be integrated in short, medium and long-range plans. “Climate change is among many other environmental efforts the port is engaged in to ensure our mission can be accomplished sustainably,” she said.
Clearly, the port’s attention to climate change is driven by economic pragmatism as well as good intentions. There’s no point fostering economic development at the waterfront only to have it flooded.
Gerking serves on the climate change committee of the Washington Public Ports Association. His employer is among the largest of the group’s 75 members, and its Snohomish County location brings with it abundant exposure to the threats of a warming world.
“We’ve got the mountains, we’ve got the sea, we’ve got the rivers,” Gerking said. “We’re on the front lines of this.”
Everett writer Julie Titone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.