‘Status quo is not working,’ tribes say, as Seattle begins relicensing Skagit River Hydro | KNKX

‘Status quo is not working,’ tribes say, as Seattle begins relicensing Skagit River Hydro

Apr 30, 2020

Seattle City Light has started the process of relicensing three large dams in the North Cascades that supply the utility with about a third of its power.  

The utility will go through a detailed federal process over the next five years, to meet regulations to keep operating the 100-year-old Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. The current license was enacted in 1995 and expires on April 30, 2025.

Among the interested parties are three tribes that have lived near the dams for as long as anyone can remember.

“The Skagit River historically has supplied over 50 percent of all of returning Puget Sound Chinook,” says  Scott Schuyler, a member and policy specialist with the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. He says the last license was agreed upon after a landmark settlement that the tribes were part of. But the fish are still declining.  

Juvenile fish (Dolly Varden, Brook Trout and Rainbow Trout) killed in Gorge Lake after a draw down event conducted by City Light in April 2019
Credit Courtesy of Upper Skagit Indian Tribe

“It just didn’t work,” Schuyler said, adding that although the Skagit is often lauded for being home to spawning populations of all five species of Pacific salmon and other species, many of them have declined dramatically or been snuffed out in recent decades. “And so we need to expand the mitigation measures — double down on the habitat restoration, maybe triple down. I don’t know.”

Schuyler says a lot more studies are needed to understand what is harming the fish. But the status quo is not working. And he says City Light needs to invest more of its profits in keeping the river whole.

The three dams that make up the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project are surrounded mostly by wilderness in the North Cascades. Seattle City Light has successfully marketed the project as a popular tourist destination, with boat tours of the glacial-fed reservoirs and former company towns where workers lived. The dams are also one of the largest hydro projects in the world that are certified as low impact.

But there is a lot to consider as the utility looks to the future. The new permit could cover the next 40 years, when both climate change and population pressure are expected to create new stressors.

Andrew Bearlin, who manages the relicensing process, says the utility wants to keep the public informed about what happens next.

“This meeting actually does not really fulfill any formal role in in the federal process," he said. "But it's still a great opportunity, we thought, just to connect with the public and any interested parties to make them as aware as possible of all of this exercise that's happening over the next five years.”  

He just submitted a 900-page, pre-application document to the Federal Energy Regulatory Agency, to kick off the process. In Thursday’s meeting, he will walk the public through key information, including some of the scientific studies they’re considering for the environmental impact statement, as well as the timeline over the next five years and opportunities for public comment.

City Light’s meeting on the Skagit Hydroelectric Project takes place online, Thursday at 3 p.m. There will be no public comments, but the public is encouraged to listen and learn. You can join by Zoom or phone.

Call-in Number: +1 (669) 900-9128

Meeting ID: 148 047 445

Meeting Link: https://zoom.us/j/148047445

UPDATE, May 4ththis story has been updated to correct the caption on the photo of fish killed after the draw down by City Light in April 2019. Salmon do not migrate through the Gorge reservoir.