County moves to stem lake’s tide

Lake Serene residents at wits end over rising water
By Nicholas Johnson | Feb 15, 2017
Photo by: Nicholas Johnson Debbie Bly-Olsen sits on the knee-high wall Friday, Feb. 10, that keeps rising lake water from flooding the house she and her husband bought last summer. Water is pumped through one of two pipes angled upward in order to avoid being overtaken by the rising water. Bly-Olsen, who hasn’t yet lost her sense of humor, said she calls the pipes her Fountains of Bellagio.

Better late than never.

That’s how lakefront property owners see Snohomish County’s recent emergency decision to quell the rising waters of Lake Serene, which will eventually alleviate the resultant flooding of yards and basements.

Following heavy rain on Thursday, Feb. 9, many residents around the lake figured the water level would likely surpass a March 2014 record of 8.04 feet before the county took any action. That’s because residents have been asking the county to fix a drain and failed outflow pipe on the west end of the lake for decades.

“They have frankly been dragging their heels on this,” Mark Fussell, president of the Lake Serene Community Association, said. “Two years ago they cleared out a collapsed pipe farther down the system.

“But the problem is that the outflow pipe goes along private property, and the county doesn’t have easements to get in to fix it.”

By Friday, Feb. 10, the water level had risen to 7.92 feet, just shy of the old record, according to county measurements.

On Monday, Feb. 13, the county took long-awaited emergency action when Executive Dave Somers authorized a plan to build a temporary drain, and the County Council introduced legislation to pay for a permanent fix.

“Flooding around Lake Serene has been a long-standing problem,” Council Vice Chair Stephanie Wright said. “I am pleased to see a proposal for an emergency fix, and a potential long-term solution.”

County officials say the primary reason for taking emergency action is to ensure rising waters don’t reach county roads and infrastructure.

“This is a permanent solution to a tough problem,” Somers said. “We are acting now to reduce the risk of damage to public infrastructure. If the property owners agree to share the costs, the final project will increase protection for public and private property around the lake.”

Under the proposed legislation, the county’s surface water management utility would pay most of the cost to protect public property. Lakefront property owners would pay an additional $197 per year for 10 years. That would cover the extra cost to reduce lake levels beyond what is required to protect county roads and public safety.

With that money, the county would begin a project this summer to construct a new pipe along the only public access point to the lake: the boat launch. That pipe would bypass the collapsed section that runs through private property and connect to the remainder of the old pipe. The county would own and operate the new outlet of the lake.

“Surface water management utility charges are used to improve drainage and water quality for everyone,” Will Hall, director of the county’s Surface Water Management division, said. “When a specific group of people want a higher level of service, we want to help them. To be fair to everybody, property owners around the lake who get a special benefit are being asked to share in the cost.”

Hall said lakefront property owners are being asked to share the cost because they are the only people who stand to benefit from improved drainage.

“The problem is entirely caused by a private pipe installed 50 years ago to artificially lower lake levels to the benefit of lakefront property owners,” he said. “The only people who serve to benefit from this project are those 95 property owners.”

Many residents around the lake, which is located just south of Mukilteo, contend that increased, county-permitted housing development within the lake’s broader watershed has contributed to increased stormwater runoff, meaning those property owners should also bear some of the cost of constructing a new pipe.

“Of course we would pay whatever it takes to take care of this, but they’re asking 95 homes on the lake when the entire watershed should be paying,” lakefront homeowner Debbie Bly-Olsen said. “Other houses are contributing water into this lake, too. We’re caught in the middle.”

Bly-Olsen and her husband, Ryan, said they did not realize when they moved into their home on the east side of the lake that the water would eventually overtake their yard and surround three sides of their home. If it weren’t for a knee-high wall built by the previous owners and several sump pumps, their ground-floor living space would be flooded.

“We’ve just been watching the water come up and up and up,” she said. “From our third floor, it looks like we have a houseboat on Lake Union. I think we could give The Edgewater in Seattle a run for their money.”

Compared to the total number of homes within the watershed, Hall said “very few” new homes have been built in recent years.

“To some extent, new construction can affect the amount and rate of runoff,” he said. “But the problem today is not the amount of runoff going into the lake. The problem today is that the lake is not draining. The fix is to improve drainage.”

Fussell, 59, said he’s the third generation of his family to live in his lakefront home on the southwest side of the lake, and he understands that lake levels will fluctuate naturally.

“When I was growing up, the water came up pretty high sometimes,” he said. “They built the pipe, and it got more efficient. Still, lakes do rise and fall. If you are a lakeside homeowner, you have to recognize that’s part of the package.”

In April, the county held a public meeting to gauge the community’s willingness to pay extra in fees to cover part of the cost of building a new pipe. This month, the county mailed a survey to lakefront property owners asking whether they would prefer to do nothing, pay for the whole project privately or share the cost with the county.

Fussell said he’s confident most affected property owners will agree to share the cost, which will allow the county to move forward with plans to begin construction this summer.

“The new plan is certainly an improvement,” he said. “The cost to our lakeside members is also lower than what was first mentioned to us in last year’s meeting. Our members will be glad to hear this, and I expect that they will favor this approach rather than any of the other alternatives.”

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