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Monday, October 2, 2023
Oct. 2, 2023

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Seattle City Light could truck endangered fish around its Skagit River dams


After years of legal challenges and a petition calling for dam removal from local tribes, Seattle City Light announced plans last week to upgrade its hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River with fish passage.

The Skagit’s native fish haven’t been able to swim north of a place now known as Newhalem since the early 1900s when the river was impounded to light up the city. Under a new proposal, the fish could be trucked to historically available spawning habitat above all three dams.

The Skagit River flows from the Canadian Cascades of British Columbia.

As the river crosses the international border, it widens into Ross Lake, where it’s halted by Ross Dam. It spills downstream toward Diablo Lake, impounded by Diablo Dam. Through regulated flows, it continues downstream where it reaches the Gorge Dam, where water is channeled through a tunnel to a powerhouse two miles down the river.

Tribes, who have since time immemorial cared for the river, were not consulted when the dams were built.

Seattle City Light’s current license to operate the dams expires in two years. The utility is asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to renew the license for another up to 50 years.

Seattle City Light filed its final license application with the federal agency on Sunday. The application, a 15,000-page document, was the product of input from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the Upper Skagit Tribe and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, and many other federal, state and local licensing participants. Some comments on the first iteration of the application were critical of City Light’s failure to complete some studies prior to the public comment deadline.

Next steps include the public environmental review process, which will be completed over the next several years. And City Light will continue hearing from project partners to develop agreements on operating the project and managing the Skagit River. Once completed, any additional agreements will be presented to the federal commission and may be included in the license.

Bull trout, steelhead and Puget Sound Chinook have been listed as threatened species since the last license for the dams was granted in 1995. Southern resident killer whales, which depend on Chinook for much of their diet, were listed as endangered in 2005.

As part of a federal process to re-license the dams, City Light last week proposed a fish passage program that would trap adult salmon at Gorge Dam and truck them above Ross Dam to spawn. After hatching, baby fish will swim into a trap, and be hauled to their downstream habitat.

Dam removal wasn’t on the table.

Following calls to consider removal from the Upper Skagit Tribe, City Light said it led an assessment of the impacts of removing Gorge Dam, the lowest of the three. “The conclusion of that assessment was that we need Gorge Dam at this time as part of our system,” said Chris Townsend project manager for City Light’s Skagit River Project.

Seattle City Light gets about 40 percent to 50 percent of its electricity from the dams on the Skagit and its Boundary Dam on the Pend Oreille River. Much of the rest is purchased from the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates dams in the Columbia River basin.

Other methods of fish passage were not possible, City Light said, because of the location and height of the Skagit dams.

City Light estimates it might spend $850 million over the next 50 years for environmental measures like estuary and mainstem river restoration. That also includes about $40 million for the first two phases of fish passage: the study and pilot phases.

Before City Light builds out the infrastructure, it plans to run a pilot project to see what adult salmon do when they hit the humanmade reservoir. They’ll need small streams shooting off the lake for spawning habitat. The plan is to tag the adults and monitor their movement.

Before formally rolling out the passage program, City Light will also study the availability of food, habitat and how existing trout species in the reservoir interact with salmon they haven’t seen in a century. It’s unclear what species will be trucked above the dam.

Next, City Light will design and budget the road and facility construction, and ongoing operations. People who receive service from Seattle City Light would pick up the cost in their rates over time.

For leaders of the 300-person Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, who have fought Seattle City Light tooth-and-nail in court, fish passage is a small victory.

“I think the major development is Seattle’s agreement to provide fish passage,” said Jack Fiander, attorney for the tribe and an enrolled citizen of Yakama Nation. “It’s a break from the last 25-plus years in which Seattle denied the need for fish to migrate above the dam.”

For years, Seattle City Light claimed fish did not make it to the upper reaches of the river its dams and reservoirs now occupy. Indigenous elders from the region, biologists and federal agencies have since offered evidence that points to the contrary.

In a written comment on City Light’s draft agreement, the National Marine Fisheries Service said providing fish passage through the project will further both federal and “tribal interests in restoring sustainable fisheries to the Skagit River basin and should be addressed in the (final agreement).”

“We can’t let this fish passage take another 25 years because the wild chinook salmon are declining so fast, they could be extinct by then,” Fiander said.

Similar trap-and-haul methods are already used elsewhere in Washington, including on White River. A 2020 review of trap-and-haul programs on large Pacific rivers with dams found that the performance and efficacy varies, but the programs may remain important tools to maintain and recover salmon populations and their resilience to climate change.

“There are unique features that must be considered at each dam and river system, but in many cases developing effective fish passage at large, high-head dams can be very challenging,” Tobias Kock, a fish biologist for the United States Geological Survey said in an email. “Trap-and-haul is definitely a tool that can be used to provide access for migratory fish species at these locations, and innovative fish passage solutions are continuing to be developed.”

As important as fish passage is, the ability for habitats upstream of these dams to support rearing and survival of juvenile fish under current and future conditions is critical as well, Kock said.

“These dams damaged the whole river system,” said Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chair Steve Edwards. “Seattle City Light has gotten cheap electricity at our cost. At the end of the day, we were the ones that paid for it. We were the ones who were damaged.”

Swinomish’s technical experts estimate that about 5,000 acres of floodplain habitat was lost when the dams impounded the river. Downstream, the Army Corps of Engineers diked and drained over 900 acres of tideland along the Swinomish Channel in the 1930s. And through the early 1900s, agriculture exploded in the Skagit River basin.

Just in the past few decades, six pocket estuary sites have been restored near Swinomish, increasing the estimated Chinook smolt production by about 48,000. But there’s still a real estuary capacity issue in the Skagit River basin.

Estuaries are like nurseries for young salmon. They rely on these places where the salt and freshwater mix to fatten them up without as high of a risk of predation before heading to the ocean. Without available estuarine habitat, young fish may plunge into the saltwater before they’re ready, reducing their chances of survival.

The Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan calls for the resurrection of 2,700 acres of estuary habitat. “We have barely restored about 600 acres,” said Swinomish Environmental Policy Director Amy Trainer. “Another maybe 400 are slowly in the works, but it’s just going too slow.”

As the relicensing process continues, Swinomish will be at the table asking for additional habitat restoration efforts from City Light.

“Three and a half years of conversations aren’t going to make up for what Seattle City Light has done in the last 100 years,” Edwards said. “It’s important that they understand that the Skagit River system is the tribe’s way of life, its culture, and they don’t realize the impacts, what they’ve done not just to the Swinomish Tribe, but the whole ecosystem.”

“We’ll never get back to 100 percent,” Edwards said. “But we better damn well get as close as we can because I don’t want our people to suffer another 100 years.”