King County has an aging system of 500 hardened embankments and levees, most of which are more than 40 years old. Many were built by farmers...

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King County has an aging system of 500 hardened embankments and levees, most of which are more than 40 years old. Many were built by farmers with the dirt they had on hand to protect their fields.

Today, these very same aging levees protect critical businesses and public infrastructure that support our livelihoods and collective prosperity.

If we learned anything from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it’s that lives are lost and economies ruined when flood-control levees are ignored and collapse. It’s far less expensive to fund flood prevention than to rebuild communities after a catastrophe.

Flooding during November 2006 marked the eighth federally declared county flood disaster since 1990 and alone caused an estimated $33 million in damage to the levees and other facilities that comprise King County’s first and best line of defense against catastrophic flooding.

While recent floods have eroded many of those levees to the danger point, others are simply old and at the end of their useful lives.

Serious flooding in King County will likely affect your life, wherever you live, whether it’s in Duvall, on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, in the Green River Valley or in Bellevue.

You may not live in a floodplain, but tens of thousands of your King County neighbors do. And tens of thousands more work in floodplains, own businesses in floodplains and commute through floodplains every day.

In fact, more than one fifth of King County’s daily economic output comes from employees who commute into or out of a 100-year floodplain.

Major transportation corridors, manufacturing and distribution centers and other important features of our economy are all located within areas that are susceptible to flooding. Many of our region’s employers have major operations in the floodplains.

The benefits of protecting our county’s floodplains extend far beyond the geographical boundaries of those specific areas, just as the negative impacts of flooding extend far beyond the high-water mark.

According to a recent analysis by ECONorthwest, Inc., the Pacific Northwest’s largest economic-consulting firm, a one-day shutdown of economic activity within King County’s floodplains would cost the region a minimum of $46 million in economic output. This figure isn’t surprising, given that the cities in the vicinity of the Green River alone comprise the largest single industrial area in the state of Washington.

Communities within King County may differ in their individual needs. But, strengthening our county’s flood-prevention infrastructure is an important step all King County residents should take together.

Fortunately, King County floodplain managers have developed a reasonable and systematic approach to minimizing the potential damage of flooding to our communities and our economy.

The King County Council has been working carefully with the executive branch, flood-protection experts and the community at large to improve safety in King County’s floodplains.

In January, the council unanimously adopted the executive’s proposed Flood Hazard Management Plan, which detailed numerous projects and strategies to reduce the threat and severity of flooding throughout King County. Development of the flood plan began in 2003 and included an extensive outreach process.

Key to the plan’s success was creation of a countywide flood-control-zone district, which we accomplished earlier this year. A 15-person district advisory committee recently completed work on recommendations to implement the flood-plan strategies.

We are all very concerned about tax burdens, but as we learned from Hurricane Katrina, making this reasonable commitment to repairing thelevees and implementing other recommendations identified in the Flood Hazard Management Plan ensures that we are doing all that can be done to protect our homes, businesses, roads and our economy.

If we fail to take the necessary preventive steps today, then we may be forced to react to an avoidable — and hugely expensive — catastrophe tomorrow.

Kathy Lambert represents river communities of the Eastside on the King County Council. Larry Phillips is chairman of the council’s Growth Management and Natural Resources Committee.