Restoring Nature to Protect People

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By Bob Carey, Strategic Partnerships Director
Photography by USGS, Bridget Besaw

Many people know that healthy rivers and associated wetlands support a large array of fish and wildlife, and that their worldwide degradation is a driver in the loss of biodiversity – including the declines of the Pacific Northwest’s iconic salmon runs. Fewer know that restoring rivers can also help protect people from the hazards of flooding and climate change.

Pierce County and the City of Orting, however, are an exception. After decades of costly and unsuccessful efforts to “control” the Puyallup River through the construction of riverbank levees and revetments, the County and City are pioneering efforts to work with nature – restoring the river and its floodplain, and reducing flood hazards as a result. Earlier this month, the National Weather Service formally acknowledged the success of this work by more than doubling the river flow volume at which it issues Flood Warnings on the Puyallup River.

For the last several years Pierce County and the City of Orting have been working to give the river more room – by voluntarily acquiring property in high risk areas, setting levees back from the river edge and reconnecting side channels, wetlands and other flood prone lands. Some of this work has been assisted by an innovative new funding program spearheaded by the Department of Ecology, Puget Sound Partnership and The Nature Conservancy called Floodplains by Design.

The National Weather Service’s decision came after monitoring flood risks during recent high flows. This winter the Puyallup River experienced multiple flow volumes which historically would have led to evacuations, large sandbagging efforts and potentially significant human and financial damages. This year, those costs were avoided. That’s a big deal.

What’s more is that through their efforts to give the river more room they have not only reduced the costs associated with flooding, they have restored critical salmon spawning and rearing habitat and created new riverfront greenways for public recreation. More benefits, fewer costs.

Now that’s success.