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Kent sandbags along Green River could remain until fall; Will county fund removal?

Caitlin Brown, of Kent, and her dog Dexter walk past giant sandbags along the Green River Trail. The sandbags could remain until fall as the city tries to get King County to pay for removing them. - STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter
Caitlin Brown, of Kent, and her dog Dexter walk past giant sandbags along the Green River Trail. The sandbags could remain until fall as the city tries to get King County to pay for removing them.
— image credit: STEVE HUNTER, Kent Reporter

Caitlin Brown walks along the narrow path Tuesday of the Green River Trail only imaging what it might be like without the giant sandbags covering most of the surface.

"It's an awesome trail," said Brown, as she took her dog Dexter for a stroll along the paved path near her Kent condo. "I just wish the bags weren't in the way."

It appears the sandbags could remain along the trail until fall as city of Kent, Auburn, Tukwila and King County officials try to figure out how to pay for the estimated $7.6 million cost to remove the giant sandbags and Hesco barriers that line 26 miles of Green River levees. The removal cost in Kent is estimated at $3 million.

"I would think it would be safe to say by fall," said Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke during a phone interview about when the bags might be removed. "That will give us the summer."

The sandbags have lined the trail for nearly three years for extra flood protection because of damage three years ago to an abutment next to the Howard Hanson Dam. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last fall it can operate Hanson Dam at full capacity, which means the sandbags are no longer needed.

Cities now face the problem of paying to remove the bags. None of the cities has extra millions sitting around to pay contractors for the expensive job.

That's why the King County Flood Control District Advisory Committee, a 15-member body composed of mayors and council members from eight cities, has recommended the King County Flood District Board pay for 75 percent ($5.7 million) of the removal cost with the cities of Kent, Auburn and Tukwila paying 25 percent ($1.9 million) over a six-year period.

The flood district board is composed of the nine members of the King County Council. It is a special-purpose government that funds and oversees flood protection projects and programs.

The board is funded through a county-wide property levy of 10 cents per $1,000 assessed value or about $40 per year on a $400,000 home. That brings in about $36 million a year for projects. The King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks carries out the approved flood protection projects and programs.

The advisory committee proposal would delay specific projects planned by the flood district board in the Green River basin in order to pay for removal of the sandbags. Each jurisdiction in the county also receives a small portion of the flood district property levy to pay for any flood control projects within each city. Under the proposal, Kent, Auburn and Tukwila would use that money to help pay for sandbag removal rather than other projects for the next six years.

"We have to get the sandbags out of there," Cooke said. "We've discovered certain industries (including Boeing) will not remove their sandbags until the city does because it will show a sign of security. The sandbags still there makes it look like we're still at risk of flooding."

King County paid for the installation of the sandbags in the fall of 2009 through the flood control district by delaying planned projects. Kent received $2.59 million from the county to place nearly 17,000 sandbags along 12 miles of levees to heighten the levees and help protect the city from flooding in case the then-damaged Hanson Dam could not hold back enough water.

No heavy rainstorms struck since the January 2009 storm that damaged an abutment next to the dam, so the bags were never tested.

But while King County paid for the placing of the sandbags, part of its agreement with the cities was the cities would have to pay for the removal of the bags.

"The flood control district agreed to pay for the placement of the sandbags because they thought like we all did that we would get funding back from the federal government," Cooke said.

Cooke, who chairs the flood district advisory committee, said efforts by the cities and county to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for the sandbag removal have come up empty.

"We signed the agreement to pay for taking the bags down but we knew we had to get the sandbags up to protect us from flooding," Cooke said. "The agreement was under duress to say we would pay for the removal."

The sandbag removal proposal by the advisory committee is scheduled to go April 23 or May 29 before the King County Flood Control District Executive Committee, which is composed of four members of the county council. The committee will decide whether to forward the recommendation to the full board, which does not meet again until July 9.

A July date before a decision and the potential fall removal didn't sit too well with Brown, who moved to South Kent from Renton last summer.

"I guess I understand because bureaucracy is a slow mover, but man," said Brown as her dog pawed at a sandbag. "I'm upset but it doesn't change the process they have to go through. That's unfortunate if they're going to have to wait until fall."

Many residents have let Kent city officials know through calls, letters and emails that they want the sandbags gone from what once was a popular recreational destination.

"There's great pressure from joggers, walkers and bicyclists to clear the trail," Cooke said.

Brown is one of the residents who wrote the city looking for answers to get the sandbags removed.

"I wish it would be done with," she said. "The sooner, the better."

For more information about the county flood control district, go to www.kingcountyfloodcontrol.org.

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