The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the licensing of hydroelectric dams, issued last week a study plan determination for the relicensing of Seattle City Light’s three-dam Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.
Of 33 studies proposed by Seattle City Light and eight studies proposed by stakeholders, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is requiring 32 from Seattle City Light’s list. The agency approved 20 study plans as written, and is requiring modifications on 12.
The studies FERC rejected include Seattle City Light’s plan to analyze the genetics of fish in the reservoirs behind the dams, and proposals from stakeholders to expand fish, habitat and mitigation land studies — as well as the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s request to consider the removal of Gorge Dam.
According to FERC, discussions about dam removal typically take place at the request of the dam operator or if a stakeholder can demonstrate that concerns for a resource, such as Skagit River salmon, cannot be addressed through license mitigation requirements.
According to FERC, the Upper Skagit tribe’s study request — which was also rejected by Seattle City Light — does not make clear “that there are serious resource concerns that cannot be mitigated if the project, including the Gorge development, is relicensed with appropriate salmonid protection measures.”
Salmonids include salmon and steelhead, a kind of trout that like salmon migrate between river and sea.
According to FERC, studies that are required “should provide the information needed to identify potential passage improvements and flow releases that would improve aquatic habitat conditions below Gorge Dam.”
Seattle City Light spokesperson Julie Moore said the public utility remains committed to completing all of the 33 studies outlined in its plan.
“It’s been City Light’s position that we are not going to limit our research and stewardship activities to the FERC relicensing process, and we continue to engage with … other organizations on caring for the watershed,” Moore said in an email.
The Upper Skagit tribe also remains committed to its fight for change.
“We are going to continue to ask the current city leadership and the potentially soon-to-be new city leadership (to consider removing the dam),” tribal member and Natural Resources Director Scott Schuyler said. “We hope to meet with the new officials once they are elected, so we are staying the course.”
In the meantime, Schuyler’s daughter, Janelle Schuyler, launched an online petition titled “Return the Sacred Skagit, Remove the Gorge Dam,” and the tribe is advertising the petition on a billboard in Seattle.
“We are going to continue to apply all methods available and resources that we have available to get the city to agree to doing the assessment,” Scott Schuyler said.
The Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams and powerhouses on the upper Skagit River generate electricity that is used in Seattle. The dams and powerhouses were built in the early 1900s and are operating under a license that expires in 2025.
Seattle City Light is seeking a new license and has been engaged in early negotiations with federal, state, local, tribal and nonprofit representatives about how to balance hydroelectric power with concerns for fish, wildlife, habitats, flood hazards, cultural needs and recreation.
The Upper Skagit tribe has been a leading advocate in seeking a closer look at connections between the dams and the decline of Skagit River fish, and received broad support on that front from other stakeholders, including NOAA Fisheries, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, other area tribes and Skagit County.
Schuyler shared during a Skagit Watershed Council meeting in April that not only are the salmon themselves sacred to the tribe, but the very location of the dams holds cultural significance.
“The upper Skagit Valley is very spiritual to my tribe. We believe that life began there in the upper Skagit Valley, and all cultures have that: somewhere where life first began,” Schuyler said. “This is something we’ve never shared before, but we’re forced to share that … so people know where we’re coming from.”
While salmon are a resource important to state residents, organizations and government agencies beyond the Upper Skagit tribe, Schuyler said for tribal members the spiritual significance of the river — particularly the stretch called the gorge, or bypass reach, between Gorge dam and its powerhouse — can’t be overstated.
“We have our inherent history affiliated with the gorge, and our culture. That drives a lot of what we’re doing here,” he said.
License stakeholders have until Aug. 5 to appeal the study plan determination.
Seattle City Light’s Moore said the studies required by the determination must be completed over the next two years and “will inform the development of protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures for the Skagit River watershed to be implemented during the next FERC license.”
In the meantime, Seattle City Light has begun some of the research necessary for the 33 studies it agreed to complete. An initial study report for those studies required by FERC is due by March 7, according to the study plan determination.