Skagit Climate Change Part 2: A Range of Local Government Efforts

By John Doyle

Skagit County was very active in evaluating the phenomena of climate change in 2010 and 2011. This activity was concurrent with efforts of the Swinomish Tribe and the Town of La Conner. All parties were sharing information and consultants, such as The Climate Impact Group (UW), and US Geological Survey (USGS).

Skagit County published its Climate Action Plan in 2010. This plan addressed the causes of climate change and actions Skagit citizens could adopt to reduce carbon emissions.

Skagit County’s attempts to understand climate change were consistent with most other communities: What is the problem? What can we do to minimize it? The Climate Action Plan focuses on carbon emissions and plans to reduce emissions. While this was an important approach for the “long run”, it ignored the Envision 2060 statement regarding the immediate potential catastrophic impacts and needed adaptive measures.

Since those efforts in 2010 and 2011, Skagit County has not developed an action plan for adaptive strategies for the impacts in the County’s resource lands or urban centers. The 2017 Strategic Plan for Skagit County makes no mention of climate change impacts.

Swinomish Community tackles climate change

The Swinomish did a Climate Impact Evaluation in 2009, and followed up in 2010 with a Climate Adaptive Action Plan. The Climate Impact Evaluation established a table matrix of elements of the Swinomish Community and evaluated the impacts of climate change from low, medium to high. The Swinomish evaluation matrix could be a valuable tool for other Skagit communities. The matrix table includes Sectors, Elements, Potential Impacts, Impact Sensitivity, Adaptive Capacity, Complicating Key Factors, Impact Level. Most of the sectors had medium to high impact levels. The sectors with highest impact levels were Cultural Resources, Shoreline, Tide Lands, Fish and Wildlife.

The 2010 Climate Adaptive Action Plan has an additional matrix that includes Climate Change Impact, Potential Adaptive Strategy, Objectives Met, Existing Authority/Capacity, Required Authority/Capacity, Potential Partners-Internal/External, and Time Frame. The matrix of the Adaptive Plan included all the sectors of the Impact Evaluation and set a priority and time frame to the strategies enlisted.

The Swinomish approach is quite comprehensive and establishes a model for other communities in the region to develop a response plan and adaptive strategies to climate change.

Flooding in La Conner, photo by John Doyle

La Conner takes a different approach

La Conner took a slightly different route, although they too had developed an earlier Climate Action Plan in 2010 focused mainly on reducing carbon emissions.

La Conner was an advisory participant in the Swinomish projects, and benefited from that experience. Lacking the grant funds that Swinomish had received for their process, La Conner began a relationship with the Skagit Climate Science Consortium. The Consortium was evaluating a process called a Design Charrette for complicated public projects. This process was developed by Steve Moddemeyer and had shown significant success around the country. After participating in a Charrette in Olympia addressing a large transportation project, La Conner and the Consortium worked together to develop a Charrette to address climate change impacts to La Conner. From October 12-13, 2017, the La Conner Planning Commission, Town Council and waterfront business owners participated in a Climate Change Design Charrette.

This specific Charrette approach is a process to identify the elements and the scientific nature of a problem. Then, all participants, including scientists, elected officials, and citizens, collectively establish the problems and strategies to address them. All votes are equal in this phase of the process. The process lent itself to very creative ideas being proposed and vetted by the group.

Ultimately, the group came to a consensus on an array of strategies for an adaptive approach for La Conner. While there were several strategies enlisted, the primary approach was to accommodate the recurring extreme events and adapt the infrastructure to store water and endure inundation. This was not an approach previously considered, but all agreed it was possible. (See Recognizing Climate Change in Skagit County Now: Are We Ready? – Part I)

The final result was a Design Charrette Event Summary which proposed changes to their Comprehensive Plan, Capital Facilities Plan, Stormwater Management Plan, and Waterfront Design Standards to address adaptive measures to climate change. For communities with limited resources, the Design Charrette process can be very effective.

Little Action Since

Unfortunately, there has been little action since 2018. The Swinomish and La Conner have made some initial capital improvements to harden their infrastructure, but the overall strategies have not been implemented. Skagit County has not followed up with the needed planning efforts that “relate to floodplain management, water use, development regulations, infrastructure investments, agriculture (crop viability) and wildfire management” called for in the Envision Skagit 2060 report.

There is a fundamental realization that has emerged from all these initial efforts. This realization is that our traditional infrastructure design being based on a 20-year event frequency is no longer valid. According to the Climate Change Impact Group and USGS, severe weather event frequency projections have collapsed. The 20-year vs 500-year events are no longer distinguishable. This will require a whole new adaptive strategy. It is time reignite our efforts to adapt to the coming change. Failure to adapt has consequences.

John Doyle is a 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.

Featured image created by Mark Lundsten.

Leave a Reply

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