Fish passage ‘likely’ as Seattle City Light aims to re-license Skagit River dams

For more than a century, salmon and the tribes that depend on them have paid dearly for the electricity generated by three dams on the Skagit River.

That could change as Seattle City Light looks to renew its federal license to continue operating the dams for an additional three to five decades.

Fish management, flood control and recreation are top priorities. And yet, from heat waves and habitat loss to lower snowpack and a growing demand for renewable energy, the entire process is complicated by the past, present and future impacts of climate change.

While the utility said it’s likely fish passage will make it into the new license, it’s still unclear what that would ultimately look like and whether it’s enough to save the salmon.

Costly preliminary research will conclude in the coming months before the utility submits a draft application later this year, and a formal one next year. But there’s much more work to be done, according to Chris Townsend, Seattle City Light’s natural resources and hydro licensing director.

“I really have no idea what the agencies are going to require and what the tribes will want, and we just have to let these discussions play out,” he said. “But it’s likely that there will be some type of fish passage included in the new license.”

The renewal process will largely determine how the utility and the tribes as well as state and federal regulators collectively manage the Skagit for the foreseeable future.

The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project consists of three major dams along the Skagit River — the Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams, in the order water flows through them — which together provide about 20% of Seattle’s electricity.

As the current 30-year license nears expiration in 2025, City Light is preparing an application to extend its operation and use of the dams, most likely for 40 more years. The application will be filed in April, two years before the current license expires as required by law.

Once submitted, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will review the application.

Seattle City Light is investing a projected $28 million in 33 scientific studies to obtain the best possible research before making any major decisions. The sheer cost of it has drawn heavy criticism and legal challenges.

Further research and cooperation should help tribes, state agencies and federal regulators reach key agreements on sensitive issues. Still, some stakeholders are concerned that fish passage won’t be enough.

“Fish passage alone is not going to recover wild Skagit River salmon,” said Amy Trainer, environmental policy director of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. “We would like that to be the case — and we want to understand the extent to which it could possibly be part of the solution — but the reason Skagit River salmon continues to struggle is the lack of habitat.”

There isn’t enough habitat in the estuaries, floodplains, side channels or riparian zones, Trainer said. Warmer waters in the lower parts of the river, and marine heat waves in the ocean, are threatening annual salmon runs.

“Even if you add fish passage, you still have to do major habitat restoration,” Trainer said. The tribe said it won’t jump to conclusions before preliminary research is done.

Seattle City Light is the country’s 10th-largest public utility, the first to own a hydroelectric facility and the first to be carbon neutral, starting in 2005.

In 2020, 86% of Seattle’s power was generated through hydro. The rest came from wind (5%), nuclear (5%) and biogas (1%), among other sources.

City Light also operates Boundary Dam, a large hydropower facility in northeastern Washington, among others.

Hydropower accounts for roughly two-thirds of statewide energy production.

Clean and reliable though it may be, hydropower comes at a price.

The Swinomish, along with the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, inhabited Skagit Valley for thousands of years before the land was settled by colonizers.

“Seattle residents, they’re the ones who benefit from the cheap electricity out of our river,” said Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Steve Edwards. “The salmon, they paid the ultimate price.”

The Skagit is home to numerous species of native Pacific salmon — Chinook, pink, chum, coho and sockeye — and steelhead trout as well as swans, geese, eagles and other birds, many of which come to feed on the salmon during the winter.

The river flows for 150 miles from the Canadian Cascades to Puget Sound. Roughly 70% of it traverses federal land, designated wilderness or a national park.

Chinook in the Upper Skagit are the healthiest in Puget Sound, according to Seattle City Light biologist Erin Lowery. More than 40% of Chinook in Puget Sound spawn below Gorge Dam. Still, the region’s Chinook haven’t recovered since the species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1999.

“This is the best last place for Chinook salmon,” Lowery said. “It’s a critical resource for recovery.”

Last year the utility agreed to refill the so-called bypass reach, a stretch of now empty river between the Gorge Dam and its powerhouse that was once considered a cultural treasure by the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. For decades, water has been drained from the river and sent through a tunnel carved out of the mountain, where it gains momentum to produce more electricity as it passes through turbines at the Gorge powerhouse.

In February, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe filed its third lawsuit against Seattle City Light, the latest case alleging the Skagit River dams are violating treaty-protected tribal fishing rights.

Crafting a license strong enough to protect wildlife and tribal rights, but flexible enough to address climate change and monitor progress over the next half century, is the challenge Seattle City Light faces in renewing its stewardship of the three dams.

“Climate change is about to exponentially wreak havoc on everything to do with the Skagit River ecosystem,” Trainer said. “That is one of the biggest questions we’re all facing … How do we adaptively manage for these greater unknowns and exponential changes that are unprecedented?”

“We don’t have the answer to that.”

Construction of the Gorge Dam finished in 1924, the Diablo Dam in 1930 and the Ross Dam in 1949. Together they boast a generating capacity of more than 800 megawatts. They also provide flood control and recreation for countless people.

During a large flood in November, the Ross Dam, the biggest of the three reservoirs and a battery for the entire system, prevented the river from rising 8 feet. Without that, Seattle City Light’s Townsend said, the city of Mount Vernon would have been flooded.

For years, the utility said, the Skagit River’s hydrology was regulated to prioritize and protect salmon, namely by maintaining water levels to help sustain redds (nests) and rearing grounds.

But as climate change worsens, hydropower has emerged as an attractive alternative to fossil fuels. With each passing year, salmon are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and warming temperatures.

“We have a lot to protect,” Edwards said.

The goal of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community is to restore all salmon in the Skagit River to historical levels.

Having fished on the river for half a century, Edwards is afraid that future generations won’t have the same opportunities.

“In 40 or 50 years, I don’t want them reading about it in a book,” he said. “I want them to be on the water catching salmon.”

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