Big project attempting to further tame the flood-prone White River

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PACIFIC, Wash. -- Giant machinery lifting huge logs churn along a swampy field. The White River is several hundred feet away from this vantage point, which is exactly why they're building a levee set far back from the flood-prone river.

It's a massive undertaking -- building a mile-long levee and then tearing down the old one. It will give the White River back 120 acres of its former flood plain for when the winter rains become too much for its banks to bear. The White River, which originates from glaciers on the northeast side of Mount Rainier, has two distinct personalities. In the summer, it's peaceful, beautiful and calm. But it's much more menacing when the rainy season arrives.

map"In the wintertime when we have a lot of rain, it’s scary and moves fast and there’s a lot debris that comes down with it. It can be very scary," says Leanne Guier.

She remembers sandbagging back in the floods of 2009. She's now the mayor of Pacific, which lies along the White River, a tributary of the Puyallup River. She says some residents and businesses have left after repeated floods that swamps parts of their South King County community in feet of water.

"If you went through 2009 and woke up to water in your home ... every time it starts to rain, you’re fearful -- is that going to happen again?"

The multi-agency Countyline Levee Project is working to make sure that doesn't happen again. It will take two full summers to complete. The idea is to work with nature instead of against it.

"If you give the river more room to flow and spread those floodwaters out, the flood levels are lower," says project manager Jeannie Stypula. "So fewer people are at risk of getting flooded."

About 200 homes will be protected by giving the White River some more room to do what rivers naturally do. The White River's water flow is already controlled by the Mud Mountain Dam. But, the 1948 dam built by the Army Corps of Engineers that holds back snow melt and excessive rainfalls can only hold so much water. During large warm rain events in our winter months, often called atmospheric rivers or a "Pineapple Express", the Corps sometimes has to release water from behind the 432-foot-high rock- and earth-filled dam.

king county habitat resortation

The new levee project comes with a $20 million price tag. King County Flood Control District is paying more than $14 million of it. It's the largest project for the 9-year-old flood district. And the design here is to also provide habitat for endangered salmon, too.

"It's a win-win situation," says Stypula. "It’s a very complex project because it blends flood protection with a lot of habitat benefits, in particular, White River spring chinook."

And for Guier, who's lived in Pacific for 17 years, she's glad she only has to worry about the rain for one more winter. "I'm glad to get this project started."

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