Compound Flood Model for the Lower Nooksack River and Delta, Western Washington—Assessment of Vulnerability and Nature-Based Adaptation Opportunities to Mitigate Higher Sea Level and Stream Flooding

Scientific Investigations Report 2023-5047
Prepared in cooperation with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife
Prepared in collaboration with Whatcom County Flood Control Zone District, Nooksack Indian Tribe, and Lummi Tribe
By: , and 



Higher sea level and stream runoff associated with climate change is expected to lead to greater lowland flooding across the Pacific Northwest. Increases in stream runoff that range from 20 to 32 percent by the 2040s and from 52 to 72 percent by the 2080s is expected to steadily increase flood risk. Flood risk is also expected to increase in response to the landward shift in high tides and storm surge, which will retard downstream conveyance. The combination of higher stream runoff, which is expected to drive greater fluvial sediment delivery to the coast, and more frequent, higher coastal waters relative to present-day (2023) levels, which will retard streamflow, is projected to cause more sedimentation across coastal and estuarine systems, exacerbating the flood risk. In the Nooksack River delta of western Washington, as in many Puget Sound deltas, resilient adaptation planning to mitigate impacts to community assets and infrastructure, nationally essential agricultural areas, and valued habitats and restoration investments that support endangered and threatened salmon recovery are underway but are in need of more informed projections of compound flood hazards.

A Delft3D Flexible Mesh hydrodynamic model was constructed and used to assess changes in the extent, frequency, and timing of flood exposure associated with higher sea level and stream runoff projected to occur in the 2040s and 2080s. The model was also used to evaluate the change in and potential mitigating effects to flood exposure associated with individual and cumulative salmon-habitat-restoration strategies. Model simulations also evaluated the sensitivity of sedimentation to the individual and cumulative effects of higher fluvial delivery, trapping by sea-level rise, and changes in hydrodynamics associated with the rerouting of flows by proposed restoration strategies. The model performed well, having mean absolute errors for water levels below 1 foot (0.3 meters) when tested during a 2-year period for two recent flood events of record, the February 2, 2020, “Super Bowl flood” and the January 8, 2009, stream flood, both of which caused substantial flooding and damage across the study area. Fluvial discharge was found to dominate flood hazard at higher elevations in the study area, whereas near the coast, sea-level rise is computed to turn a less extreme 2-year (50 percent annual exceedance probability [AEP]) bankfull streamflow, which, at present (2023), causes nuisance flooding, into a more extreme 5-year (20 percent AEP) and 10 percent AEP stream-flood event by the 2050s and 2100, respectively.

The February 2020 Super Bowl flood was calculated to be a 10-year or 10 percent AEP peak-flow event, and the January 2009 flood was calculated to be a 25-year (4 percent AEP) peak-flow event. Extreme events such as the February 2020 Super Bowl flood and the January 2009 flood caused extensive damage across the Nooksack River floodplain, and model computations predict these magnitudes of events would have notably greater effect in the 2040s and 2080s in response to higher projected sea level and stream runoff. The modeled January 2009 flood is predicted to transform into a flood event, causing flood exposure that is comparable to the 100-year or 1 percent AEP flood by the 2040s. The modeled January 2009 flood is also predicted to exceed the flood exposure of the recent November 16, 2021, flood, which caused substantial damage in the lower Nooksack River floodplain and restricted access for emergency-management efforts on important arterial roadways in the area; the measured peak discharge during the November 16, 2021, flood exceeded that of the January 2009 flood.

Two of several identified alternative strategies that reroute floodwaters to restore salmon habitat were projected to reduce exposure to the increasingly impactful 10 and 4 percent AEP stream-flood events through the 2080s. The effects of the suggested alternatives, however, were found to reduce flow velocities, promote additional sedimentation, and reduce flow conveyance in the main-stem Nooksack River, a concern to flood-management efforts, navigation, and fishing. The model also suggests that main-stem channel sedimentation is likely, given projected climate change. Higher stream runoff that increases fluvial-sediment delivery and higher sea levels that retard downstream flow are expected to lead to greater sedimentation. Lastly, the model was used to assess the sensitivity of flood exposure to the individual and cumulative effects of climate changes, alternative strategies, and sedimentation, including recently observed decadal-scale aggradation patterns. These results indicate that sediment is likely to continue to be a challenge to flood-management efforts and that nature-based alternatives that benefit ecosystem restoration may also mitigate flood exposure for several decades.

Suggested Citation

Grossman, E.E., vanArendonk, N.R., and Nederhoff, K., 2023, Compound flood model for the lower Nooksack River and delta, western Washington—Assessment of vulnerability and nature-based adaptation opportunities to mitigate higher sea level and stream flooding: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2023–5047, 49 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Compound flood model for the lower Nooksack River and delta, western Washington—Assessment of vulnerability and nature-based adaptation opportunities to mitigate higher sea level and stream flooding
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2023-5047
DOI 10.3133/sir20235047
Year Published 2023
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center
Description Report: ix, 49 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Washington
Other Geospatial lower Nooksack River and delta
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details