On January 19, 1914, King and Pierce county commissioners form the Inter-County River Improvement Commission. The commission is charged with carrying out projects on the Puyallup and White rivers to accommodate increased water flow due to the rerouting of the White River from the Duwamish-Green River valley to the Puyallup River valley. The projects include bank strengthening, channel straightening and deepening, and the construction of a debris barrier upriver from the diversion. King County and Pierce County form the commission to resolve the conflict over how the work would be funded. The contract signed by the counties resolves the allocation of financial responsibility for the initial projects and their long-term maintenance. Flooding continues on the rivers, however, and in the 1920s the counties will begin lobbying the federal government to build a dam on the White River to control floodwaters. When Mud Mountain Dam is built in 1948, flooding greatly decreases, but maintenance of the channels downstream from the dam continues today.
Before 1906 the White and the Green rivers draining the foothills of Mount Rainier's northwest flank flowed nearly parallel to each other as they left the upper elevations and emerged into the lower valley. The White carried glacial meltwater from the shoulders of Mount Rainier, and the Green began at the crest of the Cascades, near Stampede Pass.
The two rivers entered the valley, where an alluvial fan built up with sediment from the foothills created the divide between the Puyallup River watershed and the Duwamish-Green River watershed. The White River flowed just along the divide, and in 1906, just south of downtown Auburn at the site of Game Farm Wilderness Park today, it split into two channels. One flowed north and joined the Green River. The other, much smaller branch flowed south, meandered toward the Puyallup River, and was known as the Stuck River. For thousands of years, the White River shifted between the watersheds as its channel meandered across the alluvial fan at the head of the valley. Soil types deposited alongside the rivers indicate that it mostly flowed to the north.
Native communities established winter villages and summer camps along the rivers. Flooding was part of the seasonal round and could be accommodated by locating structures out of reach of most floodwaters. Plants that Native people relied upon were adapted to survive flooding. Additionally, the security provided by relying on a wide variety of plants growing across a wide area combined with a well-developed trade network to protect Native communities from catastrophe when the floods did inundate their homes or plant-gathering sites.
New Uses, Big Problems
As the non-Native communities centered around Auburn, Sumner, and Puyallup grew in the 1880s and 1890s, settlers farmed the rich soils built up with sediments carried over the lowlands by regular floods. They built homes and towns along the rivers to facilitate transporting their farm produce to downstream populations centers. Marshy lowlands and heavily forested uplands obstructed overland travel by making road construction and maintenance costly and difficult.
The location of permanent housing on the floodplains, a reliance on crops not adapted to flooding, and the existence of a cash economy made the non-Native communities vulnerable to large losses when floods inundated their homes and fields. This happened fairly regularly in the 1890s and 1900s, with a particularly large and destructive flood occurring in November 1906.
The divide between the rivers had been the site of a number of skirmishes between Pierce and King county residents in the years leading up to the 1906 flood. The Stuck River branch was pushed back and forth between the two watersheds by construction of embankments, strategic placement of logs, and other interference. In 1898 the north bluff, which had been undermined by the river's flow, sloughed down into the river and blocked the north channel entirely. The waters eventually found a new route to the north.
The Flood of 1906
When the waters rose in November 1906, logs and brush formed a drift jam in the north channel and diverted the entire river to the Stuck River valley on November 14th. It carved a new channel, took out several bridges and sections of railroad tracks, and flooded the area surrounding the river. Flooding, bank erosion, and debris buildup also affected the lower Puyallup River valley. The Seattle Times reported that Pierce County Board of Commissioners Chairman Harry Winchester (1845-1909) feared the White River because "after an ordinary freshet … it leaves it banks covered with sand from six inches to several feet deep. This sand will now be brought into Pierce County to destroy fertility of the rich Puyallup valley" ("Means a Loss of $1,000,000").
The outlook for the rivers and the farmland, and the chances that Pierce and King County would be able to resolve the situation without an agreement, were not promising. In December 1906, several hundred property owners from both river valleys and representatives from transportation companies and chambers of commerce met at Auburn to find a solution for handling the flood waters of both watersheds, which included the White, Duwamish, Stuck, and Puyallup rivers. The attendees voted to form a committee to be chaired by Aaron T. Van De Vanter (1859-1907) of Seattle to explore possible solutions to the problem.
The committee asked Major Hiram T. Chittenden, District Engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, if he would conduct a study of the situation and develop a solution. He agreed, on condition that city engineers from Seattle and Tacoma, county surveyors for Pierce and King counties, the chief engineers from the Northern Pacific, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, the Oregon & Washington railroads, and the Puget Sound Electric Company (which operated the interurban train) would consent to serve on a board of engineers. They all agreed to do so, and the counties and transportation companies funded the endeavor.
The Chittenden Report
In May 1907 Chittenden and his board of engineers delivered their report. It explained, "As an engineering question the answer is a simple one. The distance to the sea by the Duwamish route is about 40 miles; that by the Puyallup is only 20 miles. The slope by the shorter route is much greater than by the longer and the same quantity of water can be carried in a smaller channel. Finally, nature has now transferred the river to the south slope and it will be simpler to perpetuate its work than to change it by artificial means" (Chittenden, 12-13). The report also found that if the river was allowed to remain in the Stuck's channel, it would save 23,000 acres from flooding in the north, while only 9,000 acres would have to be protected in the south.
Chittenden and the engineers laid out a plan for how to protect those acres, but the costs were too high to complete all the work. Also, all the benefit of river rerouting would accrue to King County, while Pierce County would bear all the costs, and state law at that time did not allow counties to expend money outside their borders.
The Legislature Acts
Floods continued to cause damage nearly every year, even with $50,000 worth of work done in 1909 using an appropriation from the state legislature. Finally, in 1913, legislation was passed allowing counties to enter into contracts to address problems that crossed county lines. After some delay as they worked out the agreement, King and Pierce counties on January 19, 1914, signed the contract to form the Inter-County River Improvement Commission. It authorized deepening and straightening the White (formerly Stuck) and Puyallup river channels, riverbank reinforcement, and installation of a drift barrier to capture debris such as logs before they could block the channel downstream.
The agreement also called for the counties to contribute a combined $250,000 per year for six years, with King County paying 60 percent of the total and Pierce County 40 percent, and for the counties to contribute, at the same ratio, $50,000 per year for 25 years for maintenance. Thereafter, the contribution amounts would be determined annually for a period of 74 years.
The work was completed by 1919 and flooding lessened, but the problem was not entirely solved. Engineers Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949) and B. P. Thomas described the White and Puyallup at flood stage as "truly outlaw and disregard[ing] all rights" (Thomson and Thomas, 15). They argued that only by building the Mud Mountain Retarding Dam to store floodwaters and release them gradually could they hope to prevent flooding.
A severe flood in 1933 highlighted the extent of the problem, and the Army Corps of Engineers were brought in to build the dam, about 18 miles as the crow flies upriver from Auburn. The dam would not be funded until 1936 and then, after work began, its completion was delayed by America's entry into World War II. When it finally was completed in 1948, the Mud Mountain Dam allowed the Corps of Engineers to control the White River's flow. This marked a significant change in how and when water moved and how it shaped the landscape. The river's erosion of mountains and hills and filling of valleys with sediment was reduced significantly, and the White and Puyallup rivers are now each held to one channel and limited to one basin. But the changing hydrology altered the riparian habitats and affected the fish and other animals that live in and near the streams.
Over time, the management practices for the White and Puyallup rivers have changed in response to environmental concerns. The Inter-County River Improvement Commission agreement continues in effect, but it is now part of a larger set of management goals and practices.