Carnation city leaders demand action from Seattle on Tolt Dam warning system issues

Carnation city leaders are demanding action from Seattle regarding the Tolt Dam warning system following an incident last week. 

During the City of Carnation’s Council Meeting Tuesday night, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) gave a presentation on the Tolt Dam warning system that failed to work properly and sound off last Wednesday.

"We did have power outages across the region due to windstorms last Wednesday. When power went out to one of our communication systems for the monitoring system, our back up went into place and functioned partially. However, the audio warning system for the weekly siren test did not function," said Alex Chen of SPU.

Chen said 24-7 safety monitoring of the dam was never interrupted.

The Tolt Reservoir and Dam is owned and operated by the City of Seattle, and provides some of the drinking water to about 1.5 million people in Seattle. It’s located 16 miles upstream from the City of Carnation.

If the dam were to ever fail, locals in Carnation would need to evacuate to higher ground. This is where the warning system comes in, and gets tested weekly on the chance of an emergency.

The incident on January 13 is now the third time the warning system has failed to work properly since last July.

On July 28, 2020 the City of Carnation was sent into a panic and people began evacuating after the warning system issued a false alarm.

There was also another no alarm incident in the fall.

City leaders in Carnation were visibly upset over the lack of action from SPU since last summer. Many of them have suggested a text message alert system as a way of communicating messages and warnings related to the Tolt Dam.

"I’m hearing a lot of excuses about why we can’t use a text message system. I’m hearing a lot of excuses about why we can’t protect people. Guys, the alarm doesn’t freaking work. Thousands of people die. That’s on you," said Councilmember Adair Hawkins of Carnation.

"To say I’m angry is an understatement. We need a text message amber alert system. I’ve called FEMA. I’ve called the Red Cross. I’ve called King County Emergency Management System. I called California and Washington State about this. This is easy to do. It would cost us about $10 thousand. You can handle it. End of story."

"This happened on July 28 and it was a huge gigantic cluster and I want to make crystal clear here. This dam above Carnation has zero benefits to the people of Carnation," said Deputy Mayor Jim Ribail. "We have our own water supply. We don’t need you. This is all about people of Seattle… and creating a direct hazard to the citizens of Carnation, and the fact that it’s taken six months to get no movement on hardly anything is absolutely irresponsible in my mind," 

"This is a big deal and I don’t think Seattle is taking this seriously and I’m tired of it and I want some movement on this. There’s a list of things that has been presented to you guys and there’s a list of things that we’re looking for, and I don’t see a lot of checkmarks going off that box. I see a lot of meetings. I see a lot of emails flying around. I see a lot of rhetoric, but I don’t see any action. I don’t see any action fast enough," Ribail said. 

Laura Bridle-Breen lives in Carnation and said the weekly alarms have now become a source of comfort and indicates the warning system is working properly.

"I will stop and listen to that alert just to make sure I hear the ‘This is a test,’" said  Bridle-Breen. "It kind of freaks me out that it didn’t happen."

Just like most of the 2,200 people who live in Carnation, Bridle-Breen is prepared to leave the home in a moment’s notice.

"I know where [my wife’s] medicines are, where my medicines are, the cat carrier is handy. The dog leash is near the door," said Bridle-Breen. "I have multiple sclerosis (MS) and I’m mobility challenged. That alert gives me an hour to calmly get my stuff together."

SPU provided a statement to Q13 News via email that says:

"Dam safety is a top priority for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU). SPU monitors the dam 24/7 with various technology including cameras and specialized sensors. The weekly alarm test SPU conducts helps detect any technical issues or upgrades needed to the primary or backup pathways to the Tolt Dam Warning System. Since July, we’ve implemented, and continue to incorporate, additional protocols to ensure the alarm test functions, as intended, for the Carnation community."

SPU also gave information on a long term warning system replacement project that is due for completion by 2023. Following city council remarks, a spokesperson with SPU said this future project will be accelerated while considering more immediate fixes.