Water worries on the rise: Nooksack addresses increased flooding - Salish Current
February 16, 2024
Water worries on the rise: Nooksack addresses increased flooding
Matt Benoit

Residents along State Route 9 (highlighted in yellow) in the town of Nooksack find themselves increasingly worried about yard and home flooding whenever atmospheric rivers increase local water tables. The homes are sandwiched at a lower level than either State Route 9 or the railroad tracks to their east. Beyond the tracks, Crimson Court runs through the quickly building Whispering Meadows housing development, in an area that previously often flooded. (Google Earth / Airbus)

February 16, 2024
Water worries on the rise: Nooksack addresses increased flooding
Matt Benoit


About a half-mile from Nooksack’s concrete-walled city hall, Marlene Severson lives in a home painted robin’s-egg blue along an arrow-straight stretch of State Route 9 known as Nooksack Avenue.

She’s been here for about 35 years, but in the last five or six of those, flooding has become an increasing concern for her and her 40-year-old son, Jamie. 

After wild January weather last month brought historic low temperatures, followed by nearly a foot of snow, followed by an atmospheric river of warmer moisture, her home was practically surrounded by water. 

Jamie, who lives in Bellingham, frequently visits the home where he grew up to do handy work for his mother, who is widowed. The home is equipped with electric sump pumps to keep water out of the crawl space, and they saw heavy use last month. 

“They were barely keeping up,” Jamie said. 

Other homeowners along this stretch of road are becoming increasingly worried about being inundated by rising groundwater and pooling surface water, which they say isn’t moving the way it used to. [Read more: “High water in Whatcom … and getting higher?“, Jan. 30, 2024]

With a new housing development being constructed just beyond their backyards, they’re even more alert to the movement of water each time it rains too heavily for drainage to keep up. 

The path of least resistance

Brenda Riley lives in the 1400 block of Nooksack Avenue, not far from where an S-curve heads out of the city limits. The Sumas River snakes its way north to Canada roughly a half-mile away, on the other side of some Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks and a large field.

A system of hoses carries water pumped out of the backyard of a lower-lying Nooksack residence situated between Nooksack Avenue and the railroad line — an estimated half-million gallons one year. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2024)

When Riley — a local school bus driver — bought her home here eight years ago, flooding was not something she was concerned about, she said. But then she received word she’d need flood insurance. 

“I thought it was a joke,” Riley said. “FEMA said, ‘no, you are going to be required to have it’.”

Riley’s insurance designated her home as being in a high-risk flooding location, situated within the Sumas River detention drainage area. In the last several winters, high-precipitation events have led to water flooding her backyard and getting very close to her home.  

“I could plant whatever I want (in the yard), and it disappears in the two-and-a-half, three feet of water I get back there,” she said. 

The water comes from standing water and Sumas River overflow, which turns the field beyond her house into a lake. A culvert, which crosses underneath the railroad tracks, deposits that excess water on her side of the tracks. It’s supposed to run north, but encounters a small hill and stops flowing.  

“All of a sudden, I have ‘lakefront’ property,” Riley said. “I can fish off my back porch.”

Kevin Hester, Nooksack’s mayor, said homes like Riley’s originally had the back sections of their property designated as storm water retention ponds. But over the years, residents added fences, sheds and gardens to those areas. In addition, normal soil build-up has likely impeded any proper drainage that may have existed decades ago. 

‘A retention pond’ 

Loren Swier and his wife, Rebecca, have the same issue as the Severson home next door: both were constructed decades ago, at lower ground levels than homes and infrastructure surrounding them. 

“It makes us into a retention pond,” Swier said. “Highway’s up, railroad’s up. We’re down, and the place to the north of us is up almost two feet.”

Swier has also used a pump to transfer water, running a hose underneath the railroad tracks onto the other side. One year, he said he estimated pumping over half a million gallons of water from his yard. 

A triplex next door to the north was built on a concrete pad several feet higher than Swier’s yard. In addition, the newer structure has a storage unit with parking for a motorhome, along with pavement extending behind it near to the railroad tracks. 

In the past year, both Severson and the Swiers have watched as Whispering Meadows — a new housing development — has quickly been constructed on the other side of the railroad tracks, where a large field once collected water. 

Todd Daniels, Nooksack’s public works director, said the new development has a new storm drain system that runs east, eventually dumping the water into a slough that eventually connects to the Nooksack River.

Still, Jamie Severson said that some residents are still concerned how much water might be displaced by the development, and how it might affect the water table for those to the west of it. In previous winters, he said, the area where new homes sit was full of water. 

Hester pointed out that both building standards and the floodplain itself have changed over the years. 

“Some of the houses that were built later are required to be higher,” he said. In addition, requirements for storm water drainage systems have only been in place for about 20 years or so to manage potential runoff. 

The last several years of newer developments, he added, have seen some success with rain gardens and trenches, which slowly infuse water back into the ground. Piping also catches runoff and pushes it into collection areas like retention ponds.

Long-standing homes sit at lower elevations between Nooksack Avenue and BNSF railroad tracks, and are experiencing increased flooding in recent years. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2024)

“The older places around here — they really weren’t required to do a lot of that stuff, so the options are kind of limited for them,” he said. 

Seeking solutions 

Homeowners have discussed the drainage problem among themselves and with city officials, hoping to land on some kind of solution.

Jamie Severson said that Nooksack’s former mayor once told him the only permanent solution for his mother’s home was to raise it — an expensive proposition that a low-income senior like herself could never afford.

Severson had a meeting with Hester and Daniels last week, helping both sides understand the situation more clearly. 

Culverts were originally supposed to be on both sides of the railroad tracks, he said, but backfill, natural debris and construction resulted in much of the area surrounding the tracks becoming impassable for water drainage.  Excavation of new culverts would create paths for water to drain to the north, Severson said, or even to the south.

Although the Severson residence is not currently zoned as being in a floodplain, Daniels told him a 2026 update to the FEMA flood map will likely change that. Whether or not older homes and areas can be attached to new storm water systems to help drainage is also something the city is planning to examine, Hester said.

In order to make positive excavation on either problem area, the city will need the approval of both railroad officials and the county. Severson said that doesn’t bode well for timeliness, as it took BNSF two years to respond to the city about a broken railroad crossing. 

Daniels sounded more optimistic, however, having met with county operations personnel this week. He is waiting on a callback from the railway, which he said is likely to agree to help. Tasks to be done include cleaning some of the trenches along the railroad’s eastern side; debris includes large pieces of tree trunk, he said. 

Nothing is likely to occur until summer, however, when the ground is hard and dry enough to allow heavy machinery in. 

Doing just about anything this time of year is a challenge, Daniels said; crews recently dug down nine feet to deal with a sewer line break and could only surround the break with a sleeve due to extensive water saturation of soil surrounding the line. It won’t be completely fixed until summer. 

For residents to the north like Riley, a new culvert running north to the existing culvert may be an answer, diverting water into a bioswale along State Route 9, he added. Riley said anything would be better than nothing. 

“Even if it just took five feet away from my house, I would be thankful,” she said. 

While Daniels said the city in unsure how much these solutions would cost and who would execute them, he remained insistent that help is coming to residents — hopefully well before they see rising water again next winter.  

“We don’t want to leave them hanging,” he said.

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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