HAMILTON, Skagit County — Mayor Joan Cromley crossed over a backwater slough, chatting with a Seattle conservationist on a tour of her town, when a noise blared, shrill as a car alarm.
Cromley pulled out her cellphone. It’s an orca call, she explained, silencing its shriek and continuing to showcase the flood-prone town of Hamilton, population 300.
Startling as it was, the ringtone is a reminder of her town’s connection to the beleaguered southern-resident killer whales.
The Skagit River carves past the town, and chinook salmon, local orcas’ favorite food, swim by Hamilton each year as youngsters, before spilling into Puget Sound.
Chinook numbers have dwindled, and scientists fear the southern-resident killer whales are on the brink.
Now, Hamilton — proud and tight-knit even after the mines shut down, the logging jobs largely disappeared and the sawmill shuttered — is at a crossroads also.
Cromley and conservationists want to take an extraordinary step: Move her rural town. Seattle-based nonprofit Forterra, which specializes in environmental conservation and sustainable community development, recently purchased 45 acres adjacent to the town’s boundary.
Forterra is pitching a heady vision: Develop and move residents to a new, low-carbon, low-waste village with a slew of eco-friendly amenities not typically found even in large cities.
Perhaps most attractive, the site is above the reach of Skagit River floodwaters that have left Hamilton, at times, submerged up to its street signs.
Moving people out from the river’s flood plain would allow the restoration of crucial salmon habitat, conservationists say.
Can the mayor, and Forterra, convince people that leaving their homes will save the town, and also help salmon and orcas? Will flooding — projected to worsen with climate change — force the issue?
But scrappy Hamilton has persisted through disasters, economic recessions and decades of politicians saying they would move it. Many homes are raised on cinder blocks. People have adapted to its challenges.
Community and torment on the Skagit
Cromley, 49, who was fascinated with orcas by middle school, began aiming for the Northwest when she was a teenager in Pennsylvania coal country. She and her husband moved to Hamilton in 2002 “looking for something inexpensive to make our own.”
Hamilton greets visitors with a colorful sign featuring a cheery visage of the Skagit River, its sometime tormentor, and a reminder the town was established in 1872.
Historically, members of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe built temporary fishing villages here, said Scott Schuyler, a member of the tribe and its natural-resources director. Temporary was sensible: 80% of the town is within the river’s flood plain.
Hamilton now features a town hall that doubles as a pioneer museum, post office, bar, cafe, food bank and Baptist church.
The town hall, a century-old house that smells like old books, is raised so high off the street that visitors must zigzag up a four-level ramp to enter. Black and white photographs inside document the economic booms that swelled Hamilton’s population and the floods and fires that shrank it.
It flooded in 2003, the year after Cromley moved to town, and again in 2006 and 2017, when she said it took 10 dumpsters to clean up the town.
Hamilton has weathered nature’s wrath, but economic waves have proved hard, too. As surrounding communities boomed, Hamilton has remained “stagnant,” Cromley said. “The logging went away. The mining went away. The jobs went away.”
The town’s operating budget, with one full-time staffer, is $250,000. At $700 a month, Cromley said her pay works out to less than minimum wage.
Hamilton can feel stretched out, with empty pockets where homes once stood, before they burned down or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) bought them out due to flooding. FEMA said it has received 143 National Flood Insurance Program claims and paid more than $3.3 million in losses since 1995 in Hamilton. The agency has also spent $1.3 million on grant programs in the town during that time.
State and local code prevents most new construction in the flood plain. Homes damaged beyond half their market value are considered red-tagged and not allowed to be repaired.
“We’re slowly losing housing stock,” Cromley said.
Hamilton lacks in amenities, but offers space and community.
“No one really bothers us. We can enjoy our quiet corner and our animals,” said Lisa Johnson, a town-council member, who lives on three acres with five horses, six dogs, two cats, hens and chickens. “It’s our own piece of heaven.”
At the Hamilton Cafe & Store, owner Mandy Bates knows most customers by first name. Saturday’s regular special — prime rib and prawns — is reportedly a hit among locals. The community holds Easter egg hunts and Christmas celebrations for kids.
The town takes a certain pride in its flooded past. The cafe marks the 2003 flood’s waterline with a sign in a store room that’s nearly up to the ceiling.
At town hall, a photo shows late Mayor Tim Bates, Mandy’s father, driving a tractor with four more people crammed on top, scooped from floodwaters.
A new American town?
Perhaps standing at the edge of an open field lends itself to cliché.
“Our belief is, if we build it, they will come,” said Forterra President and CEO Michelle Connor, as she gazed over the farmland, just across Highway 20 from central Hamilton, that her organization purchased in March.
Connor wants to develop a new, green town center here. Forterra envisions apartments, town houses and single-family homes with rooftop solar panels, a communal composter to turn organic waste into marketable fertilizer and bio-filtering wastewater processor, rather than the septic systems Hamilton residents use now.
Connor’s wildest hope: To construct with cross-laminated timber sourced from sustainable forestry nearby. Modular design, and density, would help keep costs down.
“Triple net-zero,” Connor likes to say: Little to no net waste, energy consumption or greenhouse-gas emissions.
The idea of relocation is encoded in Hamilton’s DNA.
Town officials have talked about moving since the 1980s.
Just over a decade ago, they successfully pushed to expand the region’s urban growth area to allow for expansion.
At the time, town leaders were eyeing a 45-acre farm north of Highway 20. But the owners weren’t keen to sell, a recession hit and the idea went bust, Cromley said.
The owner approached Cromley over a year ago with an asking price. The mayor went to Forterra for help footing the bill.
Forterra pitched in $575,000 and Hamilton spent $75,000 to buy the farm. About 20 acres are buildable.
Forterra plans to develop dense “workforce housing,” Connor said. Some property would be marketed widely. Some will be earmarked for those living within Hamilton’s flood plain.
They hope to incentivize Hamilton residents to sell their homes in grant-funded buyouts through FEMA, the state or conservation groups. Then, the homes would be razed, infrastructure like septic systems would be decommissioned and historic Hamilton would be converted into floodable public space.
“Most of it would go back to open habitat,” Cromley said.
In the flood plain, market values are lower than comparable property elsewhere.
Connor estimates flood-mitigation buyouts would cover about 60% of property prices at the new town center.
She hopes to draw revenue from market sales and raise money through philanthropy or other government funding to sweeten the deal for Hamilton residents.
But it might remain a hard sell.
A home “like a park”
When floods fill Hamilton, they leave a half-inch of silt over everything, said Gayle Metcalf, a 65-year-old longtime resident. It can take weeks to shovel out.
“It must be rich,” she said. “Things grow well.”
Metcalf’s home sits on cinder blocks, with its floor raised head-high. French doors open onto a wraparound wooden deck that overlooks a manicured garden with rhododendrons, daffodils and laceleaf maples.
Metcalf has put “every spare second for the last 25 years” into the garden of her 1915 home, her first.
“The only place I could afford was in the flood zone,” said the retired teacher. “I fell in love with it when I first saw it.”
She loved its rooms that were “little odd shapes,” that it had space for her horse and that it felt “like a park.”
Like others in Hamilton, Metcalf has flood stories.
She would race home from school to unhook propane tanks, pluck lights from her yard and move everything high up in her garage. Then, she’d head to a friend’s house.
Permanent marker in the garage records the floodwaters’ height in 2003. Water crested a foot below the back door of her raised home, she said.
She thinks that’s as high as the water will get. When she finished paying her mortgage, she stopped carrying the flood insurance she’d never used.
Metcalf can’t envision vacating her garden, or house, for flooding. For her, she said, it requires a few days’ hassle every six to eight years. So long as the arthritis in her knees allows her to climb the stairs to get inside, she’ll stay.
“Once we’ve interfered with the river, we’ve interfered. To try to put it back is foolish,” she said.
Even those touched directly by flooding are skeptical.
In November 2017, Chris Harris’ family was preparing a Thanksgiving feast when water poured over a levee.
“She was cooking turkey, and then we had water in the yard,” he said of his mother. In 45 minutes, water began to seep into his parents’ rental home.
“They got 2½ inches inside,” he said. Afterward, “the landlord tried to move them in on top of it.” His parents lost everything and moved to Mount Vernon nearby.
“I’ve got something that’s paid for. It’s only a double-wide trailer, but it’s mine,” he said. “I don’t have to listen to anybody. No neighbors too close.”
Harris, 30, was able to start a business, a fencing company, because he wasn’t paying rent or a mortgage.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said, of the town moving, or his neighbors. And if they do? “Bye, more room for me.”
Johnson, with her horses, dogs and cats, said a town site of 20 acres, for some 80 households, won’t accommodate her lifestyle. But she’s supportive of the mayor’s plan with Forterra.
“It will keep the town alive.”
A new life for salmon
“Everything conspires against the salmon,” said Schuyler, of the Upper Skagit Tribe, standing at the bank of the river he’s been fishing since he was a teen. Across the Skagit, a two-lane road curves alongside its shoreline, undercutting steep foothills patchy from logging.
Logging sedimentation, warming waters and pollution are among “cumulative effects” worrisome to Schuyler.
Only some can be undone.
Over more than a century, humans dammed, diked, riprapped, dredged and cleared logs from the Skagit in attempts to control the river and keep an open channel.
“We simplified and narrowed the main channel,” said Richard Brocksmith, of the Skagit Watershed Council, an organization coordinating salmon habitat restoration and protection.
Simple rivers aren’t good for salmon, which need logs, debris and side channel “safe zones,” said Correigh Greene, a research biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Young chinook salmon use off-channel habitat to find insects and bulk up before heading to sea. Intense, constrained floods can wash away or smother chinook eggs in gravel and debris.
The Skagit River produces about 50% of Puget Sound’s wild chinook salmon, Greene said, which makes it crucial for the orcas.
Scientists and conservationists say a lack of habitat is constraining salmon populations. Hamilton, which has disconnected sloughs, plugged culverts and acres of prime side-channel real estate running through town, is a top candidate for restoration, Brocksmith said.
Moving the town will take years, decades even. To Cromley, who studied biology in college and always dreamed of working with orcas, it’s the beginning of a bold journey to help the creatures she loves and preserve the town she leads.
“We’re finally taking a gutsy step,” Cromley said. “We’ve been stuck for so long.”
No one in Hamilton will be forced to move so long as their home remains safe, Cromley said.
In the coming months, the town council will likely consider annexing and zoning Forterra’s land. If approved, Forterra will draw up development plans, in consultation with Hamilton residents. “They’ll guide the development,” Connor said.
Meanwhile, scientists warn of more frequent and intense flooding.
As the climate warms, they expect mountain precipitation here to fall more often as rain than as snow. Some years, that could intensify streamflow in fall and early winter, when Hamilton typically floods.
Models predict “major increases in flood risk,” said Alan Hamlet, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering and earth science at the University of Notre Dame, who has studied the Skagit for more than a decade.
Even if society makes modest improvements in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, 100-year floods are projected to increase by 49% by the 2080s, according to a study published in the journal BioOne. The research found flood control, with existing dams, would be “largely ineffective” in mitigating this increased risk.
Experts say it’s encouraging that Hamilton is planning now.
“When it’s blue sky, it’s awful hard to talk to homeowners,” said Tim Cook, the hazard mitigation officer for Washington state.
A new town site would give Hamilton options.
“No one wants a flood. But in Hamilton, it seems like it’s inevitable,” Cook said. “I hate to say it, but there’s a lot of opportunity that comes with events like that.”