Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts stands in the tidal zone of Skagit Bay where the Stillaguamish River meets the ocean on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. When this land swells with water during high tides, a more-than-100-year-old dike is all that protects downtown Stanwood from potentially catastrophic flooding. The city of Stanwood has secured millions in grant money to begin working towards a fix for the 4-mile earthen wall. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts stands in the tidal zone of Skagit Bay where the Stillaguamish River meets the ocean on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. When this land swells with water during high tides, a more-than-100-year-old dike is all that protects downtown Stanwood from potentially catastrophic flooding. The city of Stanwood has secured millions in grant money to begin working towards a fix for the 4-mile earthen wall. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

With funds for dike repair, Stanwood steps toward reducing flood risk

A 100-year-old dike is showing its age, threatening farmland and homes. A county grant aims to spark a major renovation.

STANWOOD — The century-old dike west of Stanwood is all that stands between the town and the ever-rising tides of the Puget Sound. As it has begun to show its age, the threat of flooding has loomed large in residents’ minds.

Thanks to a grant of nearly $2 million from Snohomish County announced last week, the dike is one step closer to a much-needed renovation aimed at preventing the risk of environmental damage and displacement. Project managers and city leaders say the cash infusion will likely help them secure more funding towards the repairs, slated to begin next year.

Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts is still haunted by the call he got one December morning in 2021, just two weeks or so after he’d taken office. The dike west of town, essentially a 4-mile mound of dirt and grass, had broken, and the only thing he could think about as he raced to the scene were the throngs of Christmas shoppers and leisurely lunchers just a short distance away in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Sid Roberts points out low points and general degradation of the dike that holds back water from Skagit Bay during high tides on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Mayor Sid Roberts points out low points and general degradation of the dike that holds back water from Skagit Bay during high tides on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The only buffer between them and the sea would be 2,200 acres of lush farmland, destroying local farmers’ livelihoods. Much of downtown Stanwood, including homes, schools and medical facilities, would be completely underwater. Highway 532, connecting Camano Island to the mainland, would likely be submerged.

The breach turned out to be relatively minor, thanks in part to the quick action of neighboring farmers patching the leaks with fill dirt, as The Daily Herald reported last year. But Roberts said he couldn’t rest easy knowing a more serious break could happen at any moment, and he especially didn’t like that it could happen on his watch.

The dike was cobbled together in the late 1800s by local farmers working with the rudimentary equipment available at the time, and the city had long been aware that it was sorely in need of an update. The Stillaguamish Tribe, through their partnership with Floodplains by Design, had already agreed to partially back the project. But the city still struggled to find the missing links to get it fully funded.

An old farmhouse at Johnson Farm is seen on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. The farm buildings will be razed, and a portion of the farmland will be flooded to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

An old farmhouse at Johnson Farm is seen on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. The farm buildings will be razed, and a portion of the farmland will be flooded to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Plans were already in the works when the break happened, but after that Roberts said city staff were “highly motivated” to lock down the funding needed to make repairs happen. A king tide in December came close to spilling right over the top of the levee, emphasizing the potential time bomb the city had on its hands.

Stanwood City Administrator Shawn Smith said the city intends to reinforce some stretches of the embankment and replace others completely. The improved dike will sit slightly closer to the mainland and take up a larger footprint, absorbing tidal wetlands and displacing valuable habitat for fish and wildlife.

To account for the missing tidelands, about 9 acres of neighboring farmland will be flooded to create new habitat, Stillaguamish Tribe environmental manager Jason Griffith said. Half will sit on a former farm owned by the city and the other half on part of a working family farm.

Mayor Sid Roberts stands atop the more-than-100-year-old dike that runs for 4 miles parallel to Skagit Bay on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. The dike failed during Roberts’ first month as mayor in December 2021, and he and the city have now secured a portion of the $7 million needed to bolster the wall. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Mayor Sid Roberts stands atop the more-than-100-year-old dike that runs for 4 miles parallel to Skagit Bay on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. The dike failed during Roberts’ first month as mayor in December 2021, and he and the city have now secured a portion of the $7 million needed to bolster the wall. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“Obviously the owners want to reduce the loss of working ag land on their farm, but if there’s anyone that understands the need to prevent worse breaks from happening, it’s the farmers right in the shadow of the levee,” Griffith said. “So they understood the need to help make this happen.”

So when Snohomish County announced last year it would use a portion of its federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to address flood risk around the county, Stanwood jumped at the chance. Last week, the county announced it would award the city a $1.75 million grant toward the dike renovation.

Roberts said the county funds are a much-needed contribution, representing about a quarter of the project’s estimated budget of $7 million. But beyond that, he said the more funding the city can show they’ve secured, the likelier other backers are to see the value in the project.

Erik Stockdale, a surface water planning manager for Snohomish County, said modeling of a potential dike breach showed such a disaster would cause up to half a billion dollars in property damage and the displacement of over 1,000 people. Floodwaters could generate up to 15,000 tons of debris that would need to be disposed of.

County spokesperson Kelsey Nylandsaid the county also accounts for “cascading consequences” to other parts of the region in its planning for a Stanwood flood. Several schools, medical facilities and other critical infrastructure sit on the floodplain, so if, say, Stanwood schools were closed for weeks due to flooding, other schools around the area would need to make room for students in their classrooms, Nyland said.

Those factors alone are reason enough for the county to invest significantly in the repairs, but Stockdale said stronger, higher tides associated with climate change were another part of the equation. The project is intended to address the immediate risks of a dike failure, not future ones, but he said the risks only rise along with the water. Each foot the tide jumps is another chance for the levee to break.

Water in Skagit Bay is hardly visible in the distance as seen from the dike that runs parallel to the bay on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. During particularly high tides, the water from the bay can reach the dike and potentially break through. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Water in Skagit Bay is hardly visible in the distance as seen from the dike that runs parallel to the bay on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, on the west end of Stanwood, Washington. During particularly high tides, the water from the bay can reach the dike and potentially break through. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Smith said construction on the dike is slated to start in summer 2024 and expected to wrap up by 2025. In the meantime, the city, county and their partners are working on securing the remaining funds. That includes advocating for support from state legislators and the governor’s office.

Roberts said he hopes to see about half of the remaining budget covered in the governor’s budget next year. The rest could come from federal grants or myriad other sources, he said, but he’s confident Stanwood will make it work one way or another.

“Maybe the mayor will get a piece of cardboard and stand on the corner to make up the difference,” Roberts said. “I’m just kidding. But you never know.”

Riley Haun: 425-339-3192; riley.haun@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @RHaunID.

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