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
BREAKING: Forterra announces a $1 million project commitment. Read the press release.
- Read The Seattle Times’ Sunday front-page article by staff reporter Evan Bush online | or in its print format | or watch the Times team’s short video report
- Watch coverage from KOMO-TV, accompanied by a print account by Joel Connelly, in the online Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
- Read an account by the Skagit Valley Herald, authored by reporter Kimberly Cauvel.
- Hear the story on KNKX by Bellamy Pailthorp, environment reporter for the NPR affiliate.
- Hear a discussion on public-radio station KUOW‘s mid-day program “The Record,” with host Bill Radke.
For decades, the Skagit Valley town of Hamilton has faced devastating 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 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.
- Retail and community spaces, for example a coffee shop, a farmer’s market, a food bank or a recreation center.
- Buildings constructed from locally- and responsibly-sourced Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), a sustainable building material.
- Ample open space, which could include playfields, 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.
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