A town on the Skagit River that’s plagued with chronic flooding is one step closer to moving out of the flood plain. That’s thanks to a $1 million investment from the conservation group, Forterra.
Hamilton is located about 30 miles east of tulip fields near La Conner. It currently has about 300 residents, down from its peak of more than 2,500 a century ago when it was a center for coal mining and logging. Much of the town sits on the banks of a bend in the Skagit River.
“The area floods on average every three and a half to five years, sometimes with more than a foot of water in homes and businesses," said Joan Cromley, Hamilton's mayor. "In 2003, we had 5 feet of water in the middle of town."
She spoke this week at Forterra's annual breakfast, where the $1 million pledge was announced. Cromley has worked for years to find funding to buy a 40-acre upland parcel, where residents of the flood plain and the town center could be relocated. Forterra has stepped in to make that possible.
RESTORING CRITICAL HABITAT
Also on stage for the announcement was Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby. The tribe supports the move because it will restore the floodplain as critical habitat for salmon.
“All that estuary used to provide what we call hotels, for the little fingerlings, coming out of the Skagit River," he said.
He says the tribe calls it “The Magic Skagit.” The river is still home to runs of all five salmon species in the Northwest, including Chinook that are needed by endangered Southern Resident orcas.
But Cladoosby laments that about three quarters of the Skagit is diked and cordoned off. Hamilton’s relocation represents a unique opportunity to unleash the river into its natural state.
“It’ll be a win-win for everyone," Cladoosby said, "for the next seven generations.”
The move will be voluntary and gradual, with affordable homes and sustainable design. Forterra says it will be a model for climate adaptation nationwide.
MODELING CLIMATE ADAPTATION
Michelle Connor, Forterra's president and CEO, says members of the organization are excited to be involved. The project will allow them to demonstrate affordable, modular housing and an attractive town center where people who are fed up with flooding will want to move.
“And then we’re combining that with triple-net-zero engineering designs – around water, around solar, around carbon – to make sure that that footprint in a rural community is as light as possible," Connor said. "Because we have got to learn to live with fewer resources and be gentle on the land.”
She says Forterra’s commitment to Hamilton is not a short-term prospect. It may take several decades before all the residents of the flood plain are able or ready to relocate. But Connor says they’ll work with urgency to get the town rebuilt upland.
“We may be there for 30 years,” Connor said. “But I believe if we build it, they will come.”
Most projections say climate change will bring more rain and less snow to the area, with flood events 30 percent deeper and more frequent in the future.
Mayor Cromley says they won’t be forcing anyone to move out of their homes. They don’t think they’ll need to. She says some residents already want to move out of the floodplain, but have not been able to afford it. Others will be forced out by circumstance.
“If the house is damaged more than 50 percent, we’re not allowed to rebuild it," Cromley said. "So, Mother Nature will take care of some of those other homes on her own."
Hamilton’s leaders started working toward this move in the 1970s. The 40-acre parcel that Forterra is investing in was rezoned as an urban growth area more than a decade ago.
You can see drone footage of Hamilton's most recent flood, in 2017, by clicking here.