Recognizing Climate Change in Skagit County Now: Are We Ready? – Part I

by John Doyle

Until 2006, for me the issues of Climate Change were mostly philosophical and theoretical. I accepted and understood the implications of “global warming” and “greenhouse gas” accumulation, but I had not experienced anything unexpected or impactful to my community.

While driving to work in 2006, I noticed that the entire south end of La Conner was flooded. We had not received any of the typical warnings from National Weather Service or the Department of Ecology. The tide was four feet higher than expected and overwhelmed our seawall.

I called my counterpart with the Swinomish Tribal Community, Ed Knight. He had noticed the same issues throughout the Reservation. We both began to evaluate and analyze the situation and came to the same conclusion. This was our first documented experience of possible climate change impacts to our communities. Increased storm intensity, minor sea level rise in combination with a high tide created this unexpected event. This was a so called 100 year (or 1%) event. We had three more of these “1%” events by 2016.

Swinomish and La Conner respond to climate threats

Following that event, the Swinomish were able to secure grant money to conduct a risk assessment, and later, adaptive strategies for expected climate change impacts. The Swinomish completed their Risk Assessment mapping and later adopted an Adaptive Strategy Plan for the Reservation by 2010.

La Conner participated in the Swinomish Task Force. Committee work and planning began for its own response plan in 2016. We conducted a “Climate Change Design Charrette” in 2017. This was a unique public process that included elected officials, staff, technical consultants, and the general public. As a result, the Town amended its Capital Facilities Plan and adopted an adaptive strategy.

County drafts Climate Action Plan

Skagit County began reviewing the issues of climate change in 2009 with a “Task Force” to review climate change issues, and later with the Envision Skagit 2060. The Task Force did develop a Climate Change Action Plan and Envision Skagit 2060 referenced their work in their final report in October 2011. Both these efforts focused on mitigation of the sources of greenhouse gases in Skagit County. There was little attention to impacts and risks for the various communities in the valley or adaptive efforts to reduce risks.

The Envision Skagit 2060 section on climate change concludes with “…We support its recommendations to reduce the collective contributions of all of us to greenhouse gas generation. However, the Climate Action Plan does not focus on the separate question of how Skagit County and the people who live here should adapt to the potential consequences of climate change. Our planning challenge is how to incorporate climate uncertainty into land use decisions that relate to floodplain management, water use, development regulations, infrastructure investments, agriculture (crop viability) and wildfire management, to name just some of the clearest examples.”

County Government efforts lag

While the County was actively addressing climate change from 2009 through 2011, there is little evidence of follow-through from those efforts. One of the conclusions of the Climate Change Action Plan has a prophetic ring to it .…”If we fail to act in a constructive and timely manner, we risk not only catastrophic changes in the weather and climate, but significant financial costs associated with regulation to force changes in behavior, and the increasing economic burden to adapt and respond to the physical effects brought on by climate change.”

Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen represented the County government at the the Government & Resiliency Panel on Climate Change held at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner on October 13, 2018. According to several witnesses, Wesen stated that the County has no role related to climate change, and people need to take responsibility for preparing for climate change on their own. This came as a surprise to several of those attending. Unfortunately, many local leaders (including our County Commissioners) feel removed and ineffective in addressing the issues of climate change.

While it is obvious that climate change is not an exclusively local issue, we can address it locally at many levels. It will take vision and persistence. Sadly, these are missing qualities in some of our elected representatives. Communities throughout the State have periodically shifted attention to the issues of climate change, but there have been few sustained efforts to implement adaptive strategies. Even less are strategies to mitigate “greenhouse” effects.

This has been a summary of some efforts to date by the County and local governments in Skagit County. In Part II, I will summarize the specific risk assessments that have been made and the adaptive strategies adopted by communities.

John Doyle is the retired La Conner Town Administrator and Planning Director. John has held a variety of State and Local management positions with an emphasis on land use, environmental and energy policy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *