Carnation declares state of emergency over Tolt Dam warning system

After repeated false alarms, city officials say they no longer trust the emergency alert system.

Carnation officials have issued a state of emergency in the city over the repeated failures of the Tolt River Dam Warning System.

The 200-foot Tolt River Dam, owned by the city of Seattle, sits just 16 miles upstream of Carnation. If the dam fails — which officials stress is unlikely — a warning system is supposed to trigger, alerting residents to seek high ground and evacuate before the city is inundated.

Over the last three years, the warning system has mistakenly triggered multiple times, including two false alarms in recent months. In June, a dam failure text message was mistakenly sent, the city said. In August, a siren went off and some residents began evacuation protocols.

City councilmembers, who approved the emergency declaration in a unanimous vote Aug. 30, say they no longer trust the reliability of the dam’s communication system to alert them of potential flooding. They also criticized Seattle leaders for failing to address the frequent failures over the past few years.

Attention to the warning system has been heightened since a major false alarm in 2020, when an alert siren attached to the warning system rang for 40 minutes. A chaotic evacuation ensued as residents assumed the failure was real.

The city has suffered PTSD and been living in fear ever since, Carnation Mayor Jim Ribail said. They are tired of waiting for a solution, he said, calling the lack of action unacceptable.

“I truly believe if this was happening in downtown Seattle, this would not be going on for three years. It would have gotten fixed immediately,” Ribail said. “We don’t have the power to do anything out there on the Tolt Dam. We have 100% of the risk and 0% benefit.”

Residents who spoke during public comment Aug. 30 shared similar concerns, saying they were frustrated by the repeated false alarms and emotional distress they caused. Resident Tara Voelker said the warning system has started to lose its meaning due to its repeated failures.

“We’re at the point where people’s reaction to the alarm is not to do the thing we’ve all been trained to do [and evacuate],” she said.

Carnation Deputy Mayor Tim Harris called the emergency declaration a necessary step, saying the failure of the warning system had become too frequent. The city is paying the price for Seattle’s infrastructure, he said.

“It makes it clear it’s a situation that the city of Seattle has to take seriously,” he said. “There are families and businesses that live out here.”

While it is unclear exactly what regulatory hurdles the declaration would remove, it does give City Manager Ana Cortez an additional $100,000 of spending authority to pursue services related to a solution, according to the declaration.

Carnation has also sent a letter to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, requesting his presence, alongside other Washington and Tribal leaders, at a community forum tentatively scheduled for Sept. 30.

“The Carnation community is traumatized from these events,” the letter said. “The civic leadership of the city has organized a community forum to outline desired changes to [Carnation’s] relationship with the City of Seattle related to the Tolt Dam.”

Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for Harrell, wrote in an email they had received Carnation’s request, but did not say if the mayor would attend. Housen redirected further communication to a Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson.

SPU is in the process of overhauling the current alert system on the dam, SPU Director Alex Chen told the city council earlier this year. Crews are working to phase in a new system that they say will improve reliability. The old system is aging and difficult to maintain, Chen said.

Each Wednesday, SPU has been testing both the new and old system, ensuring they are functioning as it attempts to fully transition to a new system.

During the latest false alarm in August, Sabrina Register, a spokesperson for SPU, said staff were performing minor work on the “soon to be decommissioned” warning system and accidentally set off an alarm. She said they immediately determined the dam was safe, noting it is monitored 24/7, and alerted partner organizations.

Register said they take recent incidents seriously and apologize for the confusion the false alarms may have caused.

“It is our top priority to decommission the old system and commission Carnation’s new state-of-the-art Tolt Dam Warning System as soon as possible,” she wrote in an email. “Based on feedback from residents on the new warning system, we are making minor adjustments and anticipate decommissioning the old system and fully transitioning to the new system, which will provide better reliability and resiliency, by October.”

This story has been updated to include a response from a Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson.