MOUNT VERNON — The sound of 1,000-pound boulders crashing onto the banks of the Skagit River pierced an otherwise quiet, gray Friday afternoon in a residential neighborhood of Mount Vernon, where horses were grazing and chickens squawked.
Those rocks being dropped are the culmination of two years and millions of dollars of work along the banks of the Skagit, restoring flood protection for homeowners and farmers throughout the region by repairing existing flood levees that took significant damage in 2020 and 2021.
Residents say it’s a necessary step to protect the community as climate change and development lead to more powerful and frequent flooding.
“I grew up my whole life on the river, and my farm’s against the river,” said farmer and Dike District 1 Commissioner Jason Vander Kooy. “This is something that has to be done if we’re going to protect the community here.”
This summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tackling several levee repairs in Skagit County, as well as in Whatcom, Snohomish and King counties. Those repair projects include significant reinforcement along the river banks.
“The construction [here] is just levee toe work,” corps project manager Janet Curran said. “We’re reinforcing the toe of the levee with appropriately sized rock to handle the scour and the erosive flows that come through here.”
Appropriately sized rocks, in this case, range from 700 to 5,000-plus pounds. They’re transported via truck to an excavator on the riverbank, which has been slowly eroding for years.
The corps is working in tandem with local government organizations, like the dike districts, to conduct and pay for repairs, necessary in stretches of the Skagit after the 2021 Veterans Day Flood when much of the valley was underwater.
Project managers from the corps said they typically try to have repairs completed before a new flood season, but this project was waylaid by staffing shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic, among other issues.
“We do our absolute best to conduct levee rehabs before the next flood season,” said Krystle Walker, an emergency management specialist with the corps. “Some projects take a little longer than others, so that goal is not always achieved, and we hear those concerns.”
Those concerns exist for neighbors of the river, apprehensive of high stream flows and potential damage like they saw in 2020 and 2021.
“It’s a big concern, knowing that there’s damage to the levee,” Vander Kooy said Friday, Aug. 25. “There’s always that heightened level of alert, keeping an eye on the weather, being prepared.”
Flood damage from 2020 and 2021 was extensive, and repairs will cost the corps about $5.6 million — 80% of the total bill — for work at five separate sections of the levee in Skagit County.
That bill, though, is small compared to the damage a potential flood could cause.
“These projects protect more than $2 billion worth of infrastructure,” Curran said from the riverbank Friday. “We’ve got wastewater treatment facilities, gas pipelines, water pipelines. Flood risk reduction is a big deal here and the Skagit is a big, powerful river.”
In addition to flood risk reduction, Curran said project engineers are also looking at environmental remediation, adding willows and plants to the riprap along the riverbank to offer shade for struggling salmon populations.
The levee stretches for miles in both directions on the Skagit River and acts as one continuous system, Curran added.
Vander Kooy said the system has to be treated like a chain.
“Like a chain, this levee is only as strong as its weakest link,” he said. “We could have the best dike here and the strongest dike there, but if I leave one section compromised … Once that part breaks, the river’s going to flood everybody.”
Construction along this stretch of the levee near Dunbar Road will be completed in the next three weeks, the corps said Friday.