LOWER THE FLOODGATES: Seattle pledges to partially return water to the Skagit River

Schott Schuyler, the natural resource director for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, stands in front of the Gorge Powerhouse.

For over a century Seattle’s municipal dams have drained a nearly three-mile stretch of the Skagit River, leaving a section of Puget Sound’s largest river empty of water. Scientists have warned that draining the river hurts threatened salmon species and the endangered orca that depend on them. The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, which considers their river sacred, has called the public utility’s dewatering equivalent to theft and “cultural trauma.”

But on Wednesday Seattle City Light (SCL), the city’s utility company, announced that they plan to lower the floodgates on their dams to return water to the dewatered riverbed “as soon as possible.” The work will be dependent on approval from state regulators but Scott Schuyler, natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, said Thursday that the news is “a positive step towards healing of the historic wrong.”

“We definitely look at that as a positive first step for the healing of the tribe,” Schuyler said. “We don’t know the complete details but the dewatered section has been an issue for the Upper Skagit — the pain of having the river taken and being dewatered — for so long. And I think our ancestors would be pleased if we are successful in reaching an agreement in returning the water.”

SCL’s pledge comes as the public utility faces mounting criticism over its Skagit River Dams. The utility is in the midst of applying for a new 50-year federal license to operate the three dams, which provide around 20 percent of the city’s power, and a broad coalition of government agencies have criticized SCL for using faulty science, misleading the public, and attempting block further scientific studies of the dams’ environmental impacts. My story for The Guardian last month outlines some of the critiques.

The dewatered section of the Skagit River, located in a steep gorge near the town of Newhalem, Washington.

Debra Smith, SCL’s chief executive officer, issued an apology Wednesday for how SCL has engaged in “adversarial” conduct during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process. Smith said during a press conference Wednesday that bringing water back to the Skagit River is part of SCL’s “pivot” towards working more collaboratively with other stakeholders during their dams’ relicensing.

“We pivoted some weeks ago and really renewed our commitment to be in partnership, in collaboration with license participants,” Smith said. “It is our intent to re-water that reach and not wait for the dam relicensing to do so.”

Chris Townsend, director of natural resources and hydro licensing for SCL, said during a press conference Wednesday that the utility will return water to the de-watered stretch “as soon as we possibly can.”

“We heard the Upper Skagit [Indian Tribe] when they said that dewatering was a great cultural insult and a wound that the Upper Skagit Tribe in particular is still suffering from,” Townsend said.

SCL first diverted the Skagit River in 1918, sending the river into a 2-mile long tunnel connected to the Gorge Powerhouse. The city eventually built taller and more modern dams along the Skagit and today the entire river’s flow is sent into the Gorge Powerhouse, leaving the stretch below the Gorge Dam almost entirely empty of water. The powerhouse discharges water near the town of Newhalem, returning the full river to its riverbed.

Townsend said the details of how much water will return to the river still need to be approved by the State Department of Ecology and the tribe itself, which is a co-manager of the river’s salmon fisheries, but he said the utility would release at a minimum 50 cubic feet per second into the dry riverbed. For reference, the Skagit River’s median April discharge at Concrete, Washington, approximately 25 miles downriver from SCL’s first dam, is over 11,000 cubic feet per second, according to the USGS.

SCL has long-claimed that its three Skagit River dams are a model of environmental stewardship and Smith said as recently as Jan. 15 that the dams “contributed to rebounding of fish populations.” Local media, like this 2003 Seattle Times column, have parroted the utility’s thinking, but plummeting salmon populations and the FERC relicensing process have forced a reckoning over how Seattle’s cheap electricity is harming the environment. King 5 news, a local TV station, produced a five-part series on the dams and their impact and the Skagit Valley Herald has closely followed the relicensing process.

Schuyler stands in front of the Gorge Dam, which diverts the entire Skagit River into a nearby power plant.

Since the utility last received a FERC license in 1995, two salmon species have been put on the endangered species list and the Southern Resident Killer Whale, which depend on the Skagit’s salmon for sustenance, are under threat of extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has said unequivocally that Seattle’ dams are partially responsible for the animal’s decline.

Despite the declining fish and orca populations, SCL started their relicensing process objecting to a majority of the studies requested by participating agencies, including rejecting fish passage studies that would evaluate how the dams block fish from migrating upriver to spawn. But that appears to have changed. SCL announced Wednesday that they plan to double the amount of money they will spend on studies required to receive their new FERC license, including a comprehensive fish passage study.

Smith said Wednesday that the utility has committed to reevaluating how their dams are affecting the river’s spawning salmon, which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We hear you, it is outdated, and we want to know. We really stepped back to take a bigger picture perspective… we want to do what’s right by fish,” Smith said.

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