'Noise' about climate change

OLYMPIA - Downtown Olympia appeared to be floating on top of Budd Inlet on Monday morning as one of the higher tides of the year filled up Puget Sound.

Climate change activists used the high tide to show how vulnerable downtown Olympia is to flooding if the sea level rises from climate change.

Olympia Climate Action members urged local officials to get serious about sea level rise both in their land use planning and development decisions and with infrastructure improvements to keep the marine waters at bay.

“If we aren’t thinking about a sea wall, we’re behind schedule,” former Olympia City Council member Karen Messmer said as a crowd of more than 100 gathered near the “Kissing Couple” on Percival Landing to mark the 8:37 a.m. high tide. “We should have done more by now to prepare for flooding.”

The latest worst-case scenarios by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group suggest sea level in Puget Sound could rise nearly 2 feet by mid-century and 4 feet by the end of the century.

“Because of global warming, we know the oceans will continue to rise,” noted state Department of Ecology environmental planner Spencer Reeder.

Monday’s 17-foot high tide – they happen a few times a year in Budd Inlet – left about 2 feet of clearance between the water and the Percival Landing boardwalk.

Much of downtown Olympia and the Port of Olympia peninsula could experience temporary flooding during high tides in the decades ahead, especially during extreme storms, scientists and climate change activists say.

To bring home the point Monday, members of Olympia Climate Action posted signs warning of sea level rise as a band played “Get Ready” by The Temptations in the pouring rain.

“If the wind was blowing and waves were forming, we’d have saltwater lapping at our feet,” said Olympia management consultant and state legislative hopeful Stewart Henderson.

Not everyone in attendance took sea level rise as indisputable fact.

“I’m weighing both sides of the issue, not convinced one way or the other,” said Port of Olympia Commissioner Bill McGregor.

Keeping new development out of areas vulnerable to sea level rise is 10 times harder than keeping it out of floodplains, noted Gordon White, Ecology manager of the shorelands and environmental assistance program.

Olympia is just beginning work on a new comprehensive plan. Climate change effects, including sea level rise, will be factored into the discussion, said Keith Stahley, the city’s director of community planning and development.

But just how climate change will shape land use decisions is an open question, he said.

Meanwhile, the city has begun to reroute and consolidate its stormwater system so pipes that empty into Budd Inlet are less likely to serve as conduits for marine water backing up onto downtown streets and properties at high tide.

A case in point, Percival Landing reconstruction will reduce the number of stormwater outfalls there from nine to four.

“We haven’t done near enough,” Olympia City Councilman Joe Hyer said of the city’s response to sea level rise. “The work is just beginning.”