Threat: New hydropower project
The South Fork Skykomish River provides tremendous scenic beauty, outstanding fish and wildlife habitat, and beloved recreation opportunities for residents and visitors in the Seattle metro area. However, this river and its unique values would be destroyed by a new hydropower project proposed by Snohomish County Public Utility District. The utility must abandon this unnecessary project and Washington’s Governor Inslee, the State Department of Ecology and the state legislature must uphold existing instream flow rules to protect the river.
The South Fork Skykomish River in Washington state drains approximately 835 square miles, almost all of which provide outstanding whitewater recreation, angling and hiking opportunities, and pristine wildlife habitat. The river is home to federally threatened salmon and winter steelhead species, and endangered bull trout. The Skykomish is a designated State Scenic Waterway because of these scenic and recreational values. Notably, the river is listed as a Northwest Power and Conservation Council Protected Area from hydropower development. The river has also been recommended by the U.S. Forest Service for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River due to its scenic, recreational and fish and wildlife values. Due to the ecological importance of the river, the Washington Department of Ecology has promulgated a rule protecting minimum instream flows for the river that are designed to protect fish, wildlife and other instream values.
In September 2011, the Snohomish County Public Utility District (SnoPUD) began the regulatory process to install a run-of-river hydroelectric facility that would remove water from above Canyon Falls, in violation of the Department of Ecology’s instream flow rule, and send it through a tunnel to turbines just downstream of Sunset Falls. SnoPUD will be filing a final license application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) this year.
The proposed SnoPUD project has many flaws, but the project poses the greatest threat to fish and wildlife. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon are important economically, culturally and environmentally. Salmon are a staple food source for Puget Sound orca whales. The region’s fishing industry depends on salmon. Furthermore, salmon are an integral food and cultural resource for the local Native American tribes. Young salmon and adult steelhead out-migrating to the sea will suffer if this project is licensed.
SnoPUD’s hydropower project will remove a significant volume of water from a 1.1 mile section of the river and send it through a tunnel to produce electricity. This will create a stressful environment for salmon and steelhead. Removing water from the river will raise the overall temperature and decrease the level of oxygen present. These changes will endanger the fish population, as salmon and steelhead require cooler temperatures and higher oxygen levels to live. Lower flows and decreased water cover will also lead to greater bodily harm as out-migrating fish pass over waterfalls and attempt to outmaneuver predators. The Tulalip Tribes of Washington and the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe have each submitted comments to FERC urging that the hydropower license be denied because of the expected adverse impacts to fish and wildlife.
Aside from environmental concerns, the SnoPUD project makes little sense economically. Rocky Mountain Econometrics (2013) estimated that the power produced by the completed project would be two to three times more expensive than if SnoPUD were to simply buy the power from the existing grid— an added expense that would likely be passed on to ratepayers.
In an effort to bring its ill-considered project closer to the finish line, in 2016, SnoPUD testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of H.R. 8. That bill, which was unable to gain passage last Congress but could be considered again soon, sought to strip from the federal government its ability to prevent damage to American Indian reservations and fisheries. H.R. 8 also could prevent the state of Washington and the tribes from managing water quality under the Clean Water Act. Rather than abandon a bad idea, or improve it to meet the concerns of the tribal, state and federal governments, SnoPUD went to Washington and asked Congress to remove the ability of states and tribes to balance power production with healthy fisheries, drinkable water and upholding trust and treaty obligations.
What Must Be Done
Despite intense opposition over the past five years, SnoPUD continues to pursue a hydropower license for this project. SnoPUD commissioners must listen to the public and recognize the fiscal impact of the project on ratepayers and the importance of maintaining the Skykomish as a free-flowing river. The only responsible option at this point is to abandon the project.
Washington’s Governor Inslee, the State Department of Ecology and the state legislature must continue to uphold the instream flow rule, which ensures that adequate amounts of water are retained in streams to protect and preserve instream resources and uses (such as fish, wildlife, recreation, aesthetics, water quality and navigation). They must not allow SnoPUD to modify the rule for this project. Such an action would establish a dangerous precedent and threaten the integrity of instream flow rules across the state. In addition, the public opposes any bills in Congress that resemble H.R. 8, which seek to limit the ability of states and tribes to achieve sustainable, balanced hydropower production.