Exploring solutions for a flood-prone town in the Skagit Valley

Working with the people of Hamilton, Washington on a vision to benefit their town, salmon and Orca

The town of Hamilton today.
Courtesy of Laurel Ramseyer

BREAKING: Forterra announces a $1 million project commitment. Read the press release.

For decades, the Skagit Valley town of Hamilton has faced floods. Forterra is working with the community and partners to build a new town center that will give residents a chance to move out of the flood plain—and restore critical salmon habitat in the process.

A proud town with a storied past. Today Hamilton is home to about 300 people, but during its peak as a center of coal mining and logging, its population surpassed 1,500. In 1903, a national magazine predicted the town would become “the Pittsburgh of the West.” However, as the coal seams gave out, and most big trees succumbed to the axe, Hamilton fell on hard times. And flooding made matters profoundly worse.

Despite warnings from Native Americans about the risk of flooding, the town’s founders settled in what they viewed as prime riverside real estate. Then the waters came, with particular savagery in 1896, 1980, 1990,1995, 2003 (a flood severe enough to make national TV), 2007, and 2017. Today, a significant flood hits the town roughly every three-and-a-half years.

A devastating 2003 flood in Hamilton, WA—one of a worsening series to strike this stalwart town. Hamilton sits alongside the powerful and unpredictable Skagit, a river critical to Chinook and other Pacific Northwest salmon.
Courtesy of skagitriverhistory.com
Flooding in Hamilton in 1896 and 2017.
Courtesy of Alamy Ltd. (left) and The Weather Channel (right)

A new chapter for an historic town

Forterra has purchased a 40-acre upland parcel for a new town center (“Hamilton Center”). Together with Hamilton residents we’ll work to create a design that embodies sustainability and honors the town’s rich history, culture, and natural assets. Likely features of the project include:

  • Affordable homes for current Hamilton residents.
  • Dining, retail, and community spaces
  • Buildings constructed from locally- and responsibly-sourced Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), a sustainable building material.
  • Ample open space, which could include playgrounds, parks, and natural areas.
  • “Net Zero” goals for energy consumption, water use, and carbon emissions. Means to this could include affordable, available technology like solar photovoltaics, combined with high-capacity batteries, rainwater collection, and recycling systems.
  • Advanced wastewater and sewage treatment via new, proven technologies, avoiding negative effects on the environment and river downslope.

Planning for sustainable infrastructure at Hamilton Center has been boosted by a major pro bono investment of time and expertise by the global architecture and engineering firm HDR.

The “Magic Skagit”

Set about 30 miles east of the tulip country around La Conner, Hamilton nestles in a deep oxbow of the Skagit River, a stretch that supports one of the largest wintering colonies of bald eagles in the country and serves as a spawning site for all five native species of Pacific salmon. Among these are Chinook, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and a prime food for the struggling Orca of southern Puget Sound.

Shifting Hamilton’s town center upland will enable significant restoration of this segment of the river. Close partners will be the ancestral stewards of the river, the people of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe.

A model for climate adaptation

Scientists with the Skagit Climate Science Consortium say severe flooding will become even more frequent on the river over the coming years. Without intervention, damage to property and disruption of lives will increase, with the costs of recovery to be borne locally and by state and federal taxpayers. Towns across the U.S. face similar threats as climate change worsens. One aim of the project is to prototype a model for thoughtful, sustainable climate adaptation strategies that other communities can replicate.

GIVE and support Forterra projects like Hamilton Center.

The upland site for new Hamilton Center.