Lynnwood wrestles with options for wayward creek

LYNNWOOD — Threaded through the suburbs of Lynnwood, Scriber Creek runs past auto dealerships, strip malls and quiet, tucked-away neighborhoods.

It’s cool and shady along the burbling stream with stretches of water the color of weathered copper. Spiders spin glistening webs and twigs snap underfoot. Traffic, almost forgotten, thrums nearby.

In the summer, the urban creek runs passive and low, compliant with humans’ efforts over time to tame and redirect its flow. It now follows the unnatural crooks and bends of property lines, culverts and roadways.

In the winter, though, the creek surges. It rips at its banks, it overtakes roads and threatens homes and businesses.

For years now, city public works staff have been trying to address the flooding, an effort complicated by private property rights and environmental regulation. Some projects have seen success, but the problems persist.

The project has proven a delicate balance between protecting an important natural resource and being realistic and responsive to the needs of people. Many of the homes and businesses along the creek were built before modern codes requiring significant setbacks and drainage measures.

After months of meetings, a community advisory group in July gave the City Council recommendations on a series of potential fixes. In the coming weeks, the council is expected to review the options in the 53-page report and pick a plan.

Scriber Creek is Lynnwood’s largest natural drainage system, covering some 3,000 acres. The creek runs from a city-owned wetland just west of Highway 99 to Scriber Lake south of 196th Street SW, eventually joining Swamp Creek near Brier. Salmon have disappeared from the creek, but cutthroat trout, frogs, lizards and beavers remain.

Scriber Lake and Scriber Creek are named after Peter Schreiber, a Danish immigrant who homesteaded on 160 acres in the early 1890s.

The area studied in the report is between the highway and Scriber Lake.

The city put together the advisory group because the staff wanted to hear from “the people who see this stuff happening in real time when it’s flooding,” said Jared Bond, the city environmental and surface water supervisor.

The city couldn’t just install bigger culverts in trouble spots and call it good. Each potential fix has pros and cons downstream. Also, the city can’t spend public money on private property.

“Previously we’ve been looking at spot problems,” Bond said. “We’re really trying to look at this corridor-wide, holistically.”

The wetland that feeds Scriber Creek is mostly hidden near the Value Village at 17216 Highway 99, where there used to be a drive-in movie theater. Twice a year, in March and June, Bond adjusts the weir that holds back water in the wetland.

Through the chain-link fence on a visit last week, the weir was camouflaged by two trash-catchers resembling upside-down laundry hampers. The weir allows Bond to hold back up to a foot of water covering 20 acres. In March, he lowers the level in the wetland back down so the plants, alders and cottonwoods can grow.

“It’s really unimpressive but what it does is quite impressive,” he said.

The flooding on Scriber Creek is most common after brief but heavy rain storms, usually between November and February.

Over time, the city’s growth has irreversibly changed the behavior of the creek, Bond said. Before the area was developed, tree needles, leaves and top soil soaked up much of the rain. Now, the water hits impervious roads, parking lots and buildings.

“All that water has no place to go besides the creek,” Bond said.

City crews have a standing seasonal state permit to clear debris from the lower portion of the creek to improve its flow.

In January, the city signed a contract with property owners to share costs on a project aimed at preventing flooding and sewage overflows at Casa Del Rey, a 46-unit complex on 56th Avenue W. A $5.6 million lift station is planned in the area in 2015.

The condo complex sits just south of Edmonds School District property surrounding Cedar Valley Community School.

In places nearby, city crews have used rebar to hold logs in place in the stream to encourage it to meander and pool instead of shooting straight through.

South of Casa Del Rey, it doesn’t take much of a storm for standing water to block off the main driveway to the business plaza along 196th Street SW near Wilcox Park. Over one culvert in the area, the asphalt sinks and buckles along an already-failing driveway.

At Casa Del Rey, the property is lined with sandbag bumpers wrapped in plastic, a testament to what the rain can bring, and how high the water can rise.

Downstream, Scriber Lake and its North Lagoon swallow up the bottoms of pedestrian bridges inside the peaceful Scriber Lake Park.

For now, the options before the council include property buyouts to reestablish a natural flood plain, building flood walls, creating underground water storage tanks, realigning and enlarging culverts, and raising buildings and street levels. A consultant will provide digital models of how each option could change the creek’s level.

Factors in the decision include cost, the difficulty of obtaining easements and permits, and buy-in from homeowners and businesses, as well as aesthetics, maintenance needs and impacts to the natural environment.

“The creek wants to bend but the water doesn’t,” Bond said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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