Orting’s new $17 million levy passes its first big test as Puyallup River swells

Orting’s point man on flooding got to do something new Tuesday as the Puyallup River rose to a level historically known to breach the city’s levees.

He took a lunch.

City Building Official Ken Wolfe felt unusually relaxed this week because a $16.8 million expansion of Orting’s flooding defenses finished ahead of schedule last month, giving the city a new level of protection from rising waters.

“There was nothing to do, nothing to see,” he said Wednesday as he took stock of the project, called the Calistoga Setback.

He was among several city employees and contractors who took victory laps along the setback a day after a rush of water took the Puyallup River to its fourth highest level since 1962, according to city records.

The other three events led to widespread flooding in Orting neighborhoods.

“It was a wet run,” said James Irish, a foreman on the project from Ceccanti construction of Tacoma. Their work finished “just in time.”

They were feeling good Wednesday, but a flood watch remained in effect for the river near Orting. The National Weather Service forecasts more rain Thursday (Nov. 27) and Friday.

“We’re just monitoring and we’re waiting for the next storm system to come in,” said Sheri Badger, spokeswoman for Pierce County Emergency Management.

On Tuesday, flooding along Kautz Creek prompted a closure of Mount Rainier National Park’s Nisqually entrance. That gate reopened Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, Pierce County public works crews cleared some debris on roads and assessed potential weak spots in flood defenses. They’re preparing for more rain.

“The system overall has held together very well,” said Tony Fantello, the county’s operations manager.

Orting launched construction of its new setback in March after six years of planning.

It was built with grants from the Pierce County Flood District, Nature Conservancy, Salmon Recovery Funding Board and the state Department of Ecology. Orting residents also helped pay for the project with storm water fees.

About 80 percent of the land in Orting’s city limits sits in the Puyallup River’s 100-year flood plain. It experienced its most severe recent flooding in 2006, when muddy water pooled on the streets of Orting’s Village Green neighborhood and caused about $400,000 in damage.

“We want to make sure that ‘06 wasn’t going to happen again,” Wolfe said.

He said the river seemed overdue to him for a big flood this year. He stressed to contractors that the project had to be finished by Nov. 1 just in case the Puyallup topped its banks.

The Calistoga Setback incorporates a new levy, a new channel for storm water and wider plain with native habitat that the river can swell into before hitting private property. That’s why it appeals to flood managers and to wildlife advocates.

“It an out-of-body experience,” Wolfe said, to see the setback pass its first test so soon.