A Sea of Uncertainty

By Joyce Phillips, AICP

The Ten Big Ideas Initiative is an APA Washington Chapter program designed to bring about far-reaching and fundamental change on a variety of issues. In this series, The Washington Planner will focus on communities taking action to respond to climate change, providing Washington APA members with more information on the work being done, and how they can take action in their community. This installment provides an overview of the series and focuses on the City of Olympia.

Olympia, Washington is a city of approximately 50,000 people on Budd Inlet at the southern end of Puget Sound. It boasts beautiful views of the Capitol, the Olympics, Mount Rainier, and the waterfront. Oh the waterfront! It includes marinas, restaurants and other businesses, art and public spaces. The American Planning Association recognized Olympia’s Percival Landing Boardwalk on the downtown waterfront as one of its Great Places in America: Public Spaces in 2010.

Olympia is a community dedicated to protecting the environment and providing a high quality of life for residents and visitors—all while providing a place where business and the economy can thrive. It is also a community that plans to accommodate 5,000 new residents in the downtown over the next twenty years.

Olympia has been engaged in sustainability and climate change issues for decades. How can it plan for continued improvements and density in its downtown when Sea Level Rise (SLR) is a very real threat? Downtown has a history of flooding and is already vulnerable during high tides. The risk of widespread flooding in downtown increases as sea levels rise and weather systems become increasingly volatile. The magnitude and timing of sea level rise is uncertain, but the risk is clear. To address the uncertainties around how much the sea level will rise and how quickly, the City monitors and evaluates different scenarios. The goal is to develop a progression of adaptation and response actions for each scenario.

In 2010 the City Council established policy around climate change that included protecting the downtown and understanding the implications of up to 50 inches of SLR. Both our 2014 Comprehensive Plan and the Downtown Strategy planning process currently underway recognize the importance of protecting the downtown from flooding. The Comprehensive Plan includes goals and policies regarding how the city will approach the issue of SLR (see goal GU 11 and related policies). The City is fortunate that much of the shoreline area is in public ownership, which will likely help as protective measures are taken over time. In 2011 the City commissioned a technical report to study engineered responses to SLR. The study established areas of flooding and flooding depths corresponding to 10, 50, 100, and 500-year return periods for increments of SLR up to 50 inches. Olympia is in the process of adopting flood proofing standards related to SLR in the downtown, including higher building elevation requirements and dry flood proofing.

Earlier this year the city began a planning process to develop a specific Sea Level Response Plan. The work will include:

2016: Scoping, Problem Definition, Jurisdictional Coordination 

2017: Plan Development including Funding Evaluation

2018: Plan Adoption Including Financial Structures

2019: Implementation

The plan will balance risks, uncertainty, and both private and public costs so that our community can implement a clear and orderly response. Additionally, the plan will identify needs for protecting downtown and will develop a response that can be implemented incrementally and modified as new information emerges.

Understanding the impacts of SLR and how to best address those over time will help protect the downtown and waterfront—focal points for Olympia. There is no “silver bullet”—no one thing we can do that will ease the impacts of sea level rise. But by planning ahead and using the best information on how to proceed, we can take several “silver buckshot” measures to protect our investments and our environment.

If you have questions regarding Olympia’s SLR planning, please direct them to Andy Haub, Water Resources Director at 360-753-8475 or [email protected]

Stepping up to address Climate Change at the state, regional, and local levels is one of the Ten Big Idea Initiatives. This work culminated in a short video focusing on the science of climate change, highlighting actions of three local communities, and a Resilient Washington document—17 written discussion briefs addressing adaptation and mitigation strategies for local governments. The briefs are grouped in three sections—Planning Approaches for Resilience, Strategies for Planning Resilient Communities, and Preparing for Climate-Related Events. The video and discussion briefs can be found at http://www.washington-apa.org/address-climate-change.

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