artist wades, rivers flood

This is one in an ongoing series of posts by artist Elizabeth Conner, artist in residence on the Tolt River. Elizabeth is working with scientists who are monitoring the river in the aftermath of a recent restoration project near Carnation. She will be formulating ways to share that information with the public. this post was co-authored by Josh Latterell.



An all-caps subject line pops up on my computer. It’s a message from Josh Latterell, my primary contact with the King County monitoring team for the Tolt flood plain restoration project. “The Snoqualmie is at flood stage. I think the best time to do a field visit would be on Friday. Are you available?” Josh says I will need chest waders, and I remember my neighbor Kenny is a fisherman. I wake him up from a nap, but it only takes him a few minutes, with one eye on the Mariners’ game, to find his chest waders. Kenny adds some purple fleece leggings to the pile, reminiscing about working at Camp Gilead, just outside Carnation. I walk back to my house, happy to have the right equipment.

En-route to Carnation from Tacoma a text message dings on my cell phone. Arriving from another direction, over Tolt Hill, Josh is unable to cross the new bridge over the Snoqualmie, since the eastern approach is flooded. He hikes in along the west bank of the Snoqualmie and crosses the river on the suspension footbridge. This structure was built by the Army Reserves 409th Engineering Company in 1976, at the same time more than 20,000 Boy Scouts, in one of the most ambitious U.S. bicentennial projects, spent five months constructing campsites, picnic tables and shelters for the new Tolt-MacDonald Park, as envisioned by Boy Scout Council Chief John MacDonald. The need to strategize how to travel to and from Carnation is not new.

I have met people who “commute” on foot across the suspension bridge from neighborhoods above the west bank of the Snoqualmie to downtown Carnation. Today, I am glad this structure provides an alternate route, so Josh and I can meet and explore the Tolt at flood stage.
When Josh and I manage to meet in the park campground at 2:30, he explains that the Tolt has dropped, and the waters of the Snoqualmie are still rising. When the Tolt is high, water flows down the pilot channels created as part of the construction phase of the floodplain restoration project. When the Snoqualmie is high and the Tolt is low, water may flow up a pilot channel. When both rivers are high, flows go in multiple directions, part of a human-assisted process that will result in a more complex and connected floodplain.

“The river is adjusting to its new situation,” Josh explains. “The gradual accumulation of material on the river’s bed may, at a certain ‘tipping point,’ cause the main stem of the river to move into the pilot channels as intended by the project designers. This project is helping us understand when and where it is better to let nature do its work, and when it is appropriate to give it a little nudge.”

Josh picks out a sturdy branch, about 5 feet long, that he uses to sound depth of water and mud before we wade through calmer portions of the Tolt. He points out “the good stuff” – fine sediments that have been deposited in the floodplain within the last twelve hours. These are recognizable by their sandy texture and the disconcerting “quicksand-like” characteristics of new alluvium, which threaten to immobilize me as a new user of chest waders. I ask Josh about graceful patterns in the sediment. He explains that the Tolt reach has a “pool-riffle” morphology. “If you look closely at some of the sediment deposits, they show dune-ripple patterns.” At one point, my feet punch through a tough layer of clay, leaving me temporarily stuck in the soft sand beneath. According to Josh, this clay “frosting” suggests that, at some point during the receding limb of the flood, there was a sudden change in velocity; water that had been moving, stopped moving, and deposited a layer of very fine particles.


I continue to stagger around behind Josh, and more or less keep up while trying to take notes, feeling like a kid in a snowsuit. It’s really fun. Ducks flash by from time to time, riding the current and providing comical points of reference that indicate how rapidly both rivers are flowing. “Look directly across this part of the river. The surface is not flat, but rather a variety of different micro-elevations, and the water is moving at many different velocities, depending on where you look. Variation in water speed, even in the same stretch of river, is one of the reasons the streambed is so patchy.”

Sound also helps me understand this process. “Any time you can actually hear the river,” Josh says, “that means its energy is being dissipated. In this case, that occurs as water slams into flow obstructions, and slides along the bank.” Today the Tolt, is noisy, but the Snoqualmie is relatively silent, carrying its energy downstream. “When there was a levee along the north bank of the Tolt, there was much less variety, and relatively few different kinds of conditions for aquatic life to choose from. Now that the levee is gone, the river is putting the streambed back in order. The natural order of the streambed may look more like disorder, or a collection of contradictions: it’s bumpy and smooth, turbulent and calm, fast and slow, noisy and quiet, shallow and deep, rocky and sandy. There is more potential for reproduction, growth, and survival for living things in a place like this, than if the only choices are ‘fast or really fast’ and ‘deep or really deep’.”

vincent_crop_roundJosh hikes back to his car, and I drive north to find a dry route back to I-90. I pass Camp Gilead and Camp Korey (the former Carnation Farms dairy complex). There is water everywhere. This year, the rains have been relentless. Floods do the real work in river restoration, and they yield important information about how the process works; floods are also very hard on people and crops. Driving along Ames Lake-Carnation Road to reach higher ground, I arrive at NE 80th (Vincent Flat Road), which is closed. I stop and stand next to what feels like the middle of a vast sea, both beautiful and scary.

Photo of Elizabeth Conner by Josh Latterell. Photos of flooding by Elizabeth Conner.