For a quarter of a century, Terry Butler has been observing the way rivers course through King County.
He has seen some, like the Tolt, transform overnight, when an avulsion – the rapid abandonment of a river channel to create a new one – has occurred. He has seen others migrate gradually, moving laterally across a basin over the course of years. He has watched side channels become main channels, witnessed erosion and sedimentation and has seen the dramatic changes a landslide can trigger.
“That’s why my work has been endlessly fascinating,” he said. “Rivers are dynamic. They’re prone to change. And yet people generally live near rivers and construct things near rivers. We’re drawn to rivers. And that can create problems.”
Though his position has changed over the years, Terry is now considered a fluvial geomorphologist – a person who studies the physical processes that shape rivers and streams. And as he retires after 25 years from what is now called the River and Floodplain Management Section in the Water and Land Resources Division, he carries with him a vast knowledge of river processes, public policy and channel migration – a trove of information born of years of research and in-the-field observations.
“The body of work Terry has accomplished is significant,” Jeanne Stypula, supervising engineer in the Rivers Section and Terry’s boss, said. “He has a unique blend of skills. He understands policy, code, technical issues and of course science. He’s done a lot of heavy-lifting over the years.”
Terry is a lanky man with a gentle manner. He’s patient with non-technical people in the section, suggesting books they might read to deepen their understanding of riverine processes. He’s funny, warm and easy-going. He’s also deeply admired in the Rivers Section. At a recognition for him at a recent staff meeting, many people wiped away tears as Jeanne read a poem she had written about him.
Terry was hired as an engineer in 1992 and began working in the Green River Basin. The staff in the section numbered about a dozen, and the section was within what was then called the Department of Public Works. Since then, the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks was created – where the Rivers Section now lives – followed by the King County Flood Control District in 2008. Section staff today number around 50.
Over the course of his years, Terry has helped to shape a new and progressive approach to riverine public policy. He was part of the team that moved the county away from flood control and towards floodplain management – “a paradigm shift,” according to Steve Bleifuhs, the section manager, that recognizes flood-risk reduction doesn’t always translate into controlling a river.
“Terry’s role was to provide the scientific foundation for how channels migrate and how rivers work, which in turn influenced hazard mapping and public policy. It was his work on channel migration zones that influences so much of what we do today,” Steve said.
Much else has changed over the course of Terry’s 25 years, including a technological revolution that has altered the way he and other river scientists work. When Terry started, LiDAR – aerial imagery that uses laser to map river-basin topography – didn’t exist. Nor were GIS – Geographic Information Systems – or, for that matter, high-tech sonar-based river surveys in widespread use. Terry recalls doing river surveys by standing in the middle of a channel with a survey rod while Jeanne stood on the bank taking measurements.
A commitment to science, however, has been a constant. Throughout his 25 years, Terry said, “I’ve tried to bring scientifically based information to people, from decision-makers to property owners. I’ve also stressed the importance of understanding hazard vs. risk. Hazard in and of itself is not the issue. It’s the risk. Sometimes flood risk reduction can meaning getting people out of the way of the hazard, not controlling the hazard.”
What he will miss most about his job, he added, are those interactions when people concerned about a river’s channel migration or some other risk suddenly understood what the science was showing about the situation – those “aha moments” when someone began to see the larger picture.
“It’s deeply satisfying when people get it. For a scientist who works in the public realm, that’s what matters most,” he said.