Carnation officials confront Seattle council over Tolt Dam

Concerns continue over the dam’s emergency alert system.

Carnation officials didn’t mince words as they told members of the Seattle City Council that their city has failed in its management of the Tolt River Dam.

All five members of the Carnation City Council traveled to Seattle City Hall on Sept. 5. Each using their allotted three minutes of public comment, they delivered a unified speech urging for safety improvements on the dam.

Concerns over the dam have heightened over the last three years. The dam’s emergency alert system — designed to alert residents of catastrophic flooding — has failed six times over that span, city officials said, including three times in the last year. Those six incidents include false siren alarms, erroneous mass text messages and the sirens failing to sound during weekly testing.

“With each failure, it becomes more and more apparent that Seattle hasn’t addressed a number of foundational issues, and that it simply doesn’t comprehend the harm it’s inflicting,” Mayor Jim Ribail told the Seattle City Council.

The 200-foot-tall Tolt Dam sits 16 miles upstream of Carnation, but is owned and operated by the city of Seattle. Its reservoir provides water for about a dozen providers and 1.5 million people in the Seattle area.

Carnation is not among those providers, but the dam presents an ongoing risk for the city. If it were to fail — which Seattle Public Utilities stresses is unlikely — an estimated 30-foot wave would inundate the Carnation in an hour.

“Seattle’s dam puts all our lives and property at risk,” Ribail said. “We get no benefit from it. We get no revenue from it. Yet we have 100% of the risk.”

Carnation officials have accused Seattle leaders of not coordinating with its partners, fixing the faulty alert system, or providing financial support for evacuation measures and emergency preparedness. The situation has left residents traumatized and fearful, or in some cases apathetic, they said. When the most recent false alarm happened, some residents waited to evacuate and began calling around or checking social media to see if the false alarm was real, Councilmember Dustin Green said.

“Seattle has taken a passive role in its ownership of the dam and its responsibilities to the communities it impacts as operator,” he said. “The failures we’ve outlined aren’t ours to solve. They aren’t King County’s to solve. They aren’t 911’s to solve.”

After the most recent false alarm on Aug. 22, the Carnation City Council unanimously declared a state of emergency over the dam’s warning system. They also invited Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and the city council to an upcoming forum later this month to discuss the dam.

After that invitation was met without a firm response, Carnation officials said, they went to Seattle to address the council in-person to emphasize the urgency of the situation.

Councilmembers concluded their remarks to Seattle leaders by again inviting them to attend a forum in Carnation on Sept. 30 and join the city in its annual evacuation drill, “Be Dam Ready.”

At the forum, councilmembers plan to discuss a number of new strategies to improve safety on the dam. They include financial support from Seattle, a way to signal if a false alarm has been triggered, and a third party evaluation of evacuation infrastructure, among other things.

A spokesperson for the Seattle City Council did not return an email from the Valley Record seeking comment.

Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said they are working with Seattle Public Utilities “to address the issues with the current alarm system impacting the City of Carnation and working to expeditiously advance planned actions to implement the new system to support the safety and peace of mind of Carnation residents.”

Carnation residents have been on edge about the dam since a major false alarm in 2020. On a Tuesday afternoon in July, the dam siren rang out for over 40 minutes with the message “the Tolt Dam has failed, please evacuate” blaring through its speakers, Councilmember Adair Hawkins said. The city’s 2,000 residents tried to evacuate, she said, and some left their cars as Carnation’s lone arterial road became clogged.

“Some older residents and disabled residents, who couldn’t make it to the evacuation site, simply waited to die,” Hawkins told the council. “Others were injured in their attempt to get to high ground. In the chaos, pets and livestock were lost.”

SPU is in the process of overhauling the current alert system on the dam. Crews are working to phase in a new system that they say will improve reliability. The old system is aging and difficult to maintain, a SPU official previously told the council.

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 last month 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.”