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Responding to Sea Level Rise: A Multijurisdictional Approach to Protecting Downtown Olympia

Responding to Sea Level Rise: A Multijurisdictional Approach to Protecting Downtown Olympia

Over the last several years, many Washington waterfront communities have been faced with the increasing reality of significant impacts due to sea level rise. In response to a historic pattern of flooding in the downtown area and in recognition of continuing threats, the City of Olympia started studying sea level rise in the early 1990s. Together with the Port of Olympia and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, the Olympia Sea Level Rise Response Plan (Response Plan) was adopted in March of 2019. The port has a marine shipment terminal in downtown Olympia and LOTT has a state-of-the-art water treatment facility, so both are key partners in this work.

The Response Plan is an action plan to protect the downtown area, balancing strategies and investments while protecting the social, economic, and environmental hub at the southernmost point of Puget Sound. The plan is guided by several principles, including being based on best available science; being adaptable to respond to changes in the best science; engaging with community partners and stakeholders as the plan evolves; ensuring strategies are financially feasible; prioritizing innovative solutions to increase resilience while providing community and environmental benefits; and — the focus of today’s blog — coordinating with partners in the region.

To implement the plan and inform its evolution, the partners formed the Olympia Sea Level Rise Response Collaborative (Collaborative) via an interlocal agreement. The Executive Committee was formed to review and approve sea level rise response actions and is chaired by Olympia Councilmember Dani Madrone.

This blog contains a Question-and-Answer interview with Councilmember Madrone about the city’s plan and the Collaborative itself.

Q&A with Dani Madrone, Chair, Olympia Sea Level Rise Plan Collaborative

How did you first get involved with the Collaborative?

I was excited to join the Collaborative in my first year in 2020. During this time, the interlocal agreement was still being drafted between the jurisdictions (it was officially adopted in 2021). I spent that year learning everything I could about the future of our downtown shoreline. Because this learning and planning has been taking place for over three decades, there was a lot to learn!

You were elected chair in June 2021 and re-elected in May 2022. Has anything during this past year surprised you or have you gained any new insights?

This year something significant shifted for the future of Budd Inlet, the southernmost tip of Puget Sound where Olympia lies. An environmental impact statement (EIS) is being conducted on the future of Capitol Lake, which is part of the Washington State Capitol Campus in our downtown. A few months ago, the Department of Enterprise Services indicated that they will be recommending the restoration of the Deschutes River estuary, removing the Fifth Avenue dam that created the lake in 1951. This decision will not only restore water quality and salmon habitat, but also give certainty to the future of the response to sea level rise, which will fare better with a restored estuary.

Why do you think it is important for elected officials to serve on interjurisdictional committees to respond to the regional impacts of climate change? How important is serving as a liaison for the city?

Each jurisdiction should have elected leadership represented in any interlocal agreement. To implement the Response Plan, important decisions will need to be made to identify priorities, pursue projects, and monitor conditions. When elected to public office, we bring and build relationships that strengthen the buy-in of our constituencies. Community engagement around sea level rise and the future of our downtown will be an ongoing process — and Olympia has a very active community.

I know it's still early days for implementation of strategies, but have you started to see any early results? Low hanging fruit/successes?

We have already seen results from a few smaller projects. The roads through downtown Olympia are the major connection between the eastside and westside of the city, which is a major route for emergency vehicles and public transit. Flooding downtown has serious impacts to the whole community. By working with our partners, we have installed tide gates in the stormwater system to address some of the immediate threats of flooding. We are also purchasing covers for the stormwater drains to prevent tidewater from entering the LOTT water treatment facility, which impacts their ability to treat wastewater.

I'm particularly impressed with the level of partnership that led to the creation of the Collaborative. Can you speak to the work of this collaborative body?

Each representative in the Collaborative has a stake in the outcome of the process, and we are aligned in our overarching goals. The LOTT Clean Water Alliance treats water from the region to ensure a healthy Puget Sound. The Port serves to provide more opportunities in the local economy. Olympia stewards our downtown neighborhood, a center for the culture and history of our city. We also have ex-officio members represented on the Collaborative who have a strong interest in the outcomes of this work, including the Squaxin Island Tribe and Thurston County. The Department of Enterprise Services has also been invited to join, since the Capitol Campus is part of Olympia’s downtown shoreline.

I can only assume that COVID has impacted some of your processes. What challenges have you faced and how have you and the other partners overcome them?

While the pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, the impact on the response to sea level rise is not direct. Some staff have been pulled into different directions for emergent needs, but the wheels are still moving. The Collaborative has not met in person since prior to 2020, but that might not be such a bad thing considering the cause of sea level rise (meeting remotely cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions from driving to meet in person). We just need to keep diving into the work. Our next steps include finding out how to fund the implementation of the plan, with options that range from federal grants and a local tax district.

What advice would you give to elected officials in other jurisdictions that may be in the early stages of attempting to plan for adaptation and responding to climate impacts?

There is no better time like the present to start planning for the future. Across the globe — in communities along every coast — sea level rise is a certain future. After years of study, it has become clear that protecting downtown Olympia is not only possible over the next century but also the most cost-effective approach. By planning now for the needed infrastructure, we can protect our downtown community, wastewater treatment facility, and maritime economy.

For more information about sea level rise in Olympia, check out this video series.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Sarah Doar

About Sarah Doar

Sarah Doar joined MRSC in September 2018.

Most recently, she served as a Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Island County. At Island County, Sarah advised on many aspects of government business, including compliance with public record and opening meeting laws. She also defended the County in Growth Management Act and Land Use litigation. Prior to moving to Washington, Sarah practiced land use, environmental, and appellate law in Florida for over eight years.

Sarah holds a B.A. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land use law from Florida State University College of Law.