Carnation leaders demand action on Tolt Dam Warning System

Mayor to Seattle: “It’s been three years of broken promises.”

After what he described as three years of waiting, Carnation Mayor Jim Ribail is demanding immediate action be taken to fix the Tolt River Dam Warning System.

Speaking to reporters during a press conference Nov. 15 at Nick Loutsis Park, Ribail said the city of Seattle has for years neglected its management of the dam’s alert system, emphasizing that its recent efforts to remedy the situation had failed.

“We are calling on the city of Seattle, the mayor’s office, the newly elected city council to make this a priority next year [and] get this fixed,” Ribail said. “It’s been three years of broken promises.”

The city-organized press conference comes about a month after a new dam siren system was installed — which city leaders say is faulty — and is the latest effort from Carnation leaders to underscore their frustrations and urge action from Seattle leadership. City officials have been pushing for action on the dam’s alert system since August, saying it poses a significant public safety risk to the city’s 2,200 residents.

The dam, owned by the city of Seattle, sits about 16 miles upstream of Carnation. If it were to fail – which officials stress is unlikely – a 30-foot wave would inundate Carnation and cause devastating impacts to the lower Valley.

Carnation residents have been on edge about the dam since a major false alarm in 2020, when the dam siren rang out for over 40 minutes with the message “The Tolt Dam has failed, please evacuate” blaring over its speakers. The situation prompted a chaotic evacuation that city leaders say still weighs heavily on residents.

Five additional alarms have occurred since then, although none with the same severity, prompting the Carnation City Council to declare a state of emergency in August.

“The subsequent false alarms have caused confusion and anxiety,” Kira Avery, executive director of the SnoValley Senior Center, said at the press conference. “We worry the longer this goes on, the alarm will be taken less seriously if an emergency is actually occurring.”

Many of those false alarms came as technicians with Seattle Public Utilities were working on the installation of a new alert system. Seattle officials said Many of the false alarms were the result of the old alert system, and a new system would help alleviate them.

“The vast majority of issues with false alarms have been due to the old system,” Josh Campbell, project manager for the warning system update, previously told the Carnation City Council. “Simply put, it’s an outdated system that is difficult to maintain and has too many variables that can lead to a false alarm.”

Seattle Public Utilities fully transitioned to the new alert system on Oct. 18, but Carnation residents say the new system has been rife with its own challenges. While false alarms have not been triggered, the new siren is much quieter and cannot be heard indoors or in certain parts of the city during its weekly test.

“Since Oct. 18, we have been unable to hear the siren and its message during the Wednesday test,” said Laura Smith, executive director of Empower Youth Network. “This affects our confidence in our ability to evacuate staff and the youth we serve during a real emergency.”

Sabrina Register, a spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities, said the new alert system is the same functionally as the old system, but with modern updates and more reliable components. They plan to keep tweaking the system, she said.

“Based on feedback from residents on the new warning system, we continue to make improvements to the system’s sound volume and quality, including upgrading all speakers, speaker amplifiers and re-recording voice messages,” she wrote in an email. “We are working to complete these additional improvements as quickly as possible. We expect all three items to be completed by January 2024.”

The siren upgrade includes a second phase that will expand the abilities of the current alert system, including additional indoor sirens and more signage. SPU expects to complete the second phase by the end of 2024, Register said. SPU also continues to provide 24/7 surveillance and monitoring of the dam and undergoes daily inspections, she said.

A spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell did not return a message seeking comment.

Carnation officials emphasized Nov. 15 that they bear the brunt of a dam they received no benefits from. SPU uses the dam as a reservoir, supplying water to Seattle while also selling it to other municipalities. Carnation, who has a separate water supply, says the city has not received any financial benefit from the dam or Seattle, but has spent city dollars on emergency preparedness and mitigation efforts to prepare for a potential breach.

City Manager Ana Cortez said the city would begin submitting invoices to the city of Seattle the for expenses they incur as a result of the dam. She also said the city would like to negotiate an interlocal agreement, noting a partnership has not existed in the dam’s 62-year existence.

“This is not us asking for donations,” she said. “We are asking them to do what’s right.”