Seattle City Light Pledges to Study Impacts of Skagit River Dam Removal

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After two years of rejecting the Upper Skagit Indian tribe’s request to study the removal of the Gorge Dam, City Light accepts an assessment.

In a sharp change in public policy, Seattle officials agreed to undertake an assessment to determine whether Seattle City Light should consider decommissioning or removing one or more of their three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River.

“We talked and listened,” said Debra Smith, CEO of City Light. “It’s clear that things are changing quickly. We all share the same concerns about the watershed and the environment, so we started looking for alternatives that would allow us to meet (the Upper Skagit Indian tribe) at their request. “

The city’s Skagit hydroelectric project generates about 20% of the city’s electricity. For the past two years, the utility has been involved in conflict-filled dam license renewal negotiations with stakeholders including the Native American tribes of the Skagit Valley, the Skagit County government and state regulators. and federal.

RELATED: Skagit River Dams in Seattle Are Hurting Salmon, Orcas and Native American Culture, Agencies Says

the Indian tribe of the High Skagit has repeatedly called on the city to study the viability of removing the most downstream dam, Gorge Dam, where the utility is draining three miles of the Skagit to increase power generation.

The tribe even bought a display panel in downtown Seattle in July, urging the mayor and city council members to consider removing Gorge Dam, which is located on the tribe’s most sacred ancestral lands.

As recently as last month, City Light officials strongly denied the request. They repeatedly said that the Gorge dam was an integral part of the project and that it was out of the question to consider its elimination.

On Thursday, City Light announced a change of position. They are committed to studying the impacts of dismantling or removing one or more of their dams.

“After listening to license participants and reviewing regulatory options, City Light commits to performing a full decommissioning assessment that answers the question, ‘Should we consider removing some or all of the dams on the Skagit? Chris Townsend, director of natural resources and hydroelectric licensing division for Seattle City Light, written in an email. “This assessment is a way for us – as a public service and as a city – to better understand whether the removal and removal of any of these dams warrants further consideration at this time. It is an open and transparent approach to decision making regarding the future of dams.

Upper Skagit leaders said they were surprised by the announcement.

“I was shocked,” said Doreen Maloney, executive director of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “We are grateful. We want to congratulate the people who made the decision. I have to thank City Light and I have to thank the mayor’s office. “

But Maloney and other tribesmen in positions of power said they had many concerns and did not yet fully trust the power company with which they had a conflicted relationship.

“It’s a concern I have: ‘Are we going to do a study to get the information and not bias what we get? “Will we have the courage and the wisdom to implement where this data takes us?” Maloney said. “History tells the tribes that we still try to uphold the agreements made in the 1800s.” Can we frame (the study) somehow with the intention of agreeing to put implemented what we find? This should be a major concern for everyone.

The city of Seattle built the Skagit Dams about 100 years ago. Unlike almost all other federally licensed hydroelectric projects in the region, the City Light project does not include fish passage infrastructure. Utility did not invest in systems to help salmon bypass dams with fish ladders or other technologies such as trapping and trucking fish around dams.

When license renewal negotiations began two years ago, City Light said in public documents and meetings that fish passage or dam removal was not necessary because their dams were being built on top of it. natural fish barriers where the salmon could not access the habitat anyway. Tribal, state and federal scientists have debunked this decades-old claim. In public documents, stakeholders such as NOAA Fisheries, the National Park Service, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and biologists from the Upper Skagit Natural Resources Department have said the Seattle project is devastating for the fish races because it blocks 40% of the river where the salmon could spawn and grow.

In February, City Light agreed to study the possibility of adding a fish passage above their three dams.

“I think (the dam removal assessment) is important. I always said I wanted a collaboration. I wanted us to be in partnership, ”said Smith of City Light. “I’m aware we weren’t seen that way and we really tried to put a stake in the ground and say we really mean it.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) City Light’s last Skagit dams were authorized in 1995. Since then, three species of salmonids – chinook salmon, rainbow trout and bull trout – have been added to the list of species in Endangered. And the killer whale that relies on the Skagit River Chinook as its preferred prey has also been listed.

With salmon in the center From Native American culture to the tribes of the Skagit Valley, the tribal leaders said the terms and conditions of a new license that could last up to 50 years are essential to their way of life.

“Whatever we do in this place, we’ll live with it. Our children will live with it. Our grandchildren will live with it. It is not in the nature of Indian tribes to pick up and go looking for a new place. There is no new place. We have to fight for here. The booth is here, ”said Maloney. “We will not abandon this request (for a dam removal study). We will continue to push for this. We don’t have 10 or 15 years to lose, folks. We’re going to lose salmon, we’re going to lose killer whales, we’re going to lose all kinds of things if you don’t act.

In July, the Sauk-Suiattle Indian tribe, based in Darrington, chased the city of Seattle on the dams, arguing that congressional laws creating the Oregon and Washington territories prevented rivers from being blocked by migrating fish. The complaint called for the removal of the Gorge Dam if fish passage was not added under a new permit.

Sauk-Suiattle’s lawyer said the utility is using a stall tactic by agreeing to assess whether a dam removal study is warranted.

“I see it as one more delaying tactic … An agreement to study something is not an agreement to do it. There has to be a firm commitment to what they are willing to do,” said Jack. Fiander, Sauk lawyer. -Suiattle.

City Light officials said if the study determines the time is not right to consider dam removal, they will reconsider the assessment throughout the next permit.

“By definition, compromise means that not everyone gets everything they need, but in this case I think we will all benefit from very good information and a process that will allow us to continue to develop our knowledge, ”Smith said.

The utility also said the study will be a collaborative effort.

“Seattle City Light will seek the views of (stakeholders) and be transparent in developing this assessment,” wrote Townsend of City Light.

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