MOUNT VERNON, WA - A river runs through downtown Mount Vernon, Washington, a city of 32,000 about 60 miles north of Seattle, 80 south of Vancouver, B.C. The river - the Skagit - has its headwaters in the Canadian Cascades and flows 150 miles southwest until it flows into Puget Sound just west of Mt. Vernon. Its waters nurture the blueberries and strawberries, potatoes and green peas that help rank Skagit County among the 10 richest agricultural counties in Washington state.
"If downtown is the heart" of Mount Vernon, noted The Skagit Valley Herald, "the river is its soul." But they have a testy, even torrential relationship. For just as the Skagit runs through downtown it often runs all over it, flooding streets and businesses, stores and restaurants, effectively ignoring the 150,000 sandbags volunteers fill every time the forecast warns "flooding!".
Much as he loves the Skagit, Larry Pirkle who's fished the Skagit for 30 years and owns the Draft Pics sports bar downtown, says "it's a very serious situation when that river floods. It's a nasty situation and it's really scary." Dave Cornelius, the owner of a downtown bookstore that sits 5 feet below the Skagit at flood stage, told KIRO-TV, that "you have to be kind of stoic about it." When the river rises and starts lapping at his back door, he said, he just opens it to "let the water run right through the front."
Both Pirkle and Cornelius and lots of other people who live, work and have invested in downtown Mount Vernon are eager to see what one historian called the "eternal battle" between the river and downtown that's lasted "at least 140 years" finally end. "I'll be happy when it's all done," Cornelius added.
And soon it will be. In May, 2012, Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau held a press conference to announce that, thanks to funding from State Building Construction Account and the Department of Ecology, the City would move forward with the first phase of a $12.9 million project to build a flood wall from Lion's Park to the Division Street Bridge help save property and revitalize our historic downtown area" and the surrounding low- and moderate-income residential area against the risks and ravages of a 100-year flood. Work began in June.
Even better, in early 2013 the City received the funding it needs to move forward with the second phase of its downtown flood protection plan – construction of an additional 1,650-foot floodwall from the bridge south to the Moose Lodge and a ¾ acre riverfront park.
The funds are being provided by the State, the City and HUD through a $1 million Section 108 loan guarantee. Under the Section 108 program, a local government like Mount Vernon can to borrow money from private investors at reduced interest rates by pledging some of its current and future Community Development Block Grant allocations awarded annually by HUD to cover the loan amount as security for the loan. Over the years, Section 108 guarantees generally have generated $4 billion of private investment for every $1 in Section 108 guarantee.
"For almost 35 years, our CDBG program has provided local governments with the resources and the flexibility they need to address urgent local priorities," said HUD Northwest Regional Administrator Mary McBride. "Because of the borrowing capacity it provides, our Section 108 program provides even more resources, even more flexibility. And, with its downtown and so much of its affordable housing supply at risk from recurrent floods, those are exactly the tools Mount Vernon needs to try to put the mighty Skagit at bay. We're very pleased that something in our toolbox can be helpful to Mount Vernon's to protect its town, its assets and its citizens."
The Skagit, says the National Weather Service, reaches flood stage once it crests at 28 or more feet. In the last ten years alone, it's done that six times. It surely will happen again. But next time, hopefully, the new flood wall will be finished and downtown will stay dry.
# # #