Funding Secured for White River Flood Safety and Habitat Repair

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Sumner City Council recently accepted a $14.64 million state grant to assist with the White River Restoration Project.

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If things go according to plan, restoration work on approximately 170 acres of land in Sumner will begin in the spring of 2023 to help reduce flooding of the White River.

The city council recently accepted a $14.64 million grant from the Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program on Jan. 18 at the city council meeting. The grant will go to one of the four projects of the municipal program White River Restoration Project.

“This is the largest grant awarded by PSAR,” said Director of Public Works Mike Dahlem.

The White River is at risk of flooding every year because there is “less room for water,” city spokeswoman Carmen Palmer said. The water level rises as sediment and debris stick to the bottom as they wash off Mount Rainier over time.

The river held about 20,000 cubic feet of water per second. Now it can only hold about 4,000 cubic feet per second, Dahlem said. Cubic feet per second is a measurement used for the volume and speed of water flow.

This change in water flow affects the fish living in the river. Endangered species like chinook salmon, rainbow trout, and bull trout are just a few of the types of fish that inhabit the river.

“That’s not how this river was supposed to work in the first place,” Palmer said. “It’s unnatural, to begin with.”

In the early 1900s, farmers used dynamite to redirect the river, forcing it to flow in the opposite direction. Farmers in Pierce County and King County were debating who should own the river, Palmer said.

Sumner is Pierce County’s largest industrial employer, Dahlem said. Warehouses for companies such as REI, Costco and Amazon are located near White River. About 17,000 people work in the region.

“Just think of all these people who can’t come and do their jobs,” Palmer said. “Maybe their building is dry but there is water on the pavement or there is water in their building.”

The city began receiving state funding in 2015 when it secured an $824,000 grant. This led to a partnership with groups such as the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Puyallup Indian Tribe, as well as the creation of a larger project than just flood mitigation, Palmer said.

The project is divided into four parts: the bridge, the setback dyke, the tip bar and the habitat. The habitat project involves restoring the 170 acres and costs approximately $102.84 million. The other three projects cost less: $30 million for the bridge, $25.73 million for the setback dike, and $20.73 million for the switch bar.

The bridge project will make the Stewart Road Bridge taller and wider, which will improve river and traffic flow. The setback dyke will dedicate approximately 20 acres to retain flood waters and habitat. The point bar project will place a seawall to protect industrial buildings.

Approximately 50% of the financing for the housing project will come from the value of the land. Other sources of funding include groups such as Pierce County, BNSF Railway, and the PSAR grant the city recently accepted.

The habitat project will come first because the city got the funding it needs, Dahlem said. Ideally, the bridge project would be the starting point, but it takes time to fund the bridge, he said.

“It would be better to start at the top and gradually work your way down,” Dahlem said. “Unfortunately, this one comes first, and it will always work on its own.”

The habitat project will convert approximately 170 acres of land near 105 24th St. E., east of White River, into a habitat with side channels or lanes for the river to flow through. The Sumner Link Trail will also be moved near train tracks, Dahlem said.

About 3 to 8 feet of land will be dug up and covered with gravel, Dahlem said. Log revetments, structures to control erosion, will also be put in place so the side channels can be a breeding habitat for salmon, he said.

“What happens is when we get all that water that can’t stay in the river, it will direct it into that area and it will go through those side channels, so we have more capacity in the river,” Dahlem said.

The city is currently waiting to obtain a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers so it can finalize the design for the habitat project, Dahlem said. Then they will issue construction bids. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2023 and take around four years.

The city is still working to secure funding for the other three projects, Dahlem said. The bridge project still needs $11 million for construction financing, and the receding dike and point bar projects do not have financing.

“A small town doesn’t have the money to fund something like this,” Dahlem said. “We have to rely on subsidies and then use a bit of our utility or traffic impact fees to top it all off.”

Angelica Relente covers topics that affect communities in East Pierce County. She started as a news intern in June 2021.

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