The PUD is renewing a hydropower permit and hopes to improve the Sultan River’s environment and recreation.
By Bill Sheets
EVERETT — A few years from now, there could be more salmon spawning in the Sultan River, and more chances for kayakers and boaters to get out on the water as well.
Improving a river for people as well as fish is the key component of the Snohomish County PUD’s application to renew its federal licensing for its hydropower system, utility officials say.
The PUD expects to spend $21.4 million on projects to restore fish habitat and whitewater riding opportunities to the Sultan River, and more in upkeep over 45 years for a total of $69.5 million. The expense will be financed with bonds backed by power bills paid for by PUD customers.
The PUD filed a settlement agreement last month with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The previous 50-year license is due to expire in 2011. The new 45-year license still must navigate state and federal rules before it can be approved.
The PUD began bringing interested parties together in 2005 to discuss the new hydropower license, officials said. The Tulalip Tribes and a whitewater recreation group were involved in the talks, along with several government agencies.
While the federal government requires only one monthly meeting a year with interested parties prior to relicensing, "we’ve probably been having 30 or 40 a year,” said Kim Moore, an assistant general manager for the PUD.
"That’s what’s unique here,” PUD general manager Steve Klein said. "We’re able to come together to be co-managers of the resource.”
The previous license, issued in 1961, was for Culmback Dam alone. The Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project, added in 1984, consists of several parts.
The dam was built in 1965 to expand Spada Lake and increase drinking water supply for the county. About 80 percent of the drinking water for Snohomish County comes from Spada Lake, via Lake Chaplain to the city of Everett.
In 1984, the dam was raised, quadrupling the size of the lake. That same year, a 4-mile tunnel, 10 to 14 feet in diameter, was bored through Blue Mountain and a smaller, 4-mile pipeline was added to divert water from the lake to a new pumphouse downstream on the Sultan River.
There, four turbines generate about 5 percent of the PUD’s power, enough for about 35,800 homes.
While the PUD has taken several measures to lessen the project’s effect on the river and the environment, the low water flow caused by the dam and the pipeline creates problems, both for fish and whitewater enthusiasts.
Side channels to the river, where fingerling salmon often stop to eat, have dried up. Debris that formerly was washed out accumulates instead. When a big flow does come, it’s often too much.
"All of the peak flows were taken out unless it was such as big flow that it would overtop the dam and then it was damaging,” said Abby Hook, a hydrologist for the Tulalip Tribes. "Instead of a dynamic system, you have kind of a static canal.”
One project involves adding more dead trees and wood to the river to create a greater variety of flow conditions, including pools where fish can rest. Another involves reopening many of the former side channels, either by digging or by strategically placing dead wood in places where the water will naturally divert into the former streambeds, Hook said.
Another measure to help fish will help people as well. More water will be released from the dam to mimic natural high flows. That will provide chances for river rafters to run whitewater as well.
Before the hydroproject features were added in 1984, the river was well-known among whitewater riders, said Tom O’Keefe of Seattle, stewardship director for American Whitewater, a national advocacy group.
For 12 to 14 miles in the Sultan River’s upper reaches, just below the dam, "it’s a pretty spectacular river canyon,” said O’Keefe, who was involved in the discussions with the PUD.
Historically, the river had rapids from class 2 to class 4, in the moderate-to-difficult range, he said. The scale goes up to 6.
The agreement allows for predetermined releases of water on four days per year, two in April or May and two in September, with at least two weeks notice; and two other times a year at the PUD’s discretion with 48 hours notice, officials said.
O’Keefe said he would like to have had more whitewater days but agreed to this number for several reasons. The upper parts of the river are difficult to reach and are not likely to be a spur-of-the-moment destination, he said. It’s a physically demanding trip that even serious river riders would likely not attempt for two weeks in a row, he said. Also, there are other whitewater opportunities in the Skykomish River drainage area, and the hydroelectric project supplies clean energy to the county.
O’Keefe, who has been involved in many similar agreements around the nation, praised this one even though he didn’t get everything he wanted.
"It’s one of the best, most innovative plans in the country regarding how to marry all the interests,” he said.
Other features include:
- Monitoring and protecting historic properties, including old mining camps;
- Protecting wildlife, such as marbled murrelets, and terrestrial habitat;
- Improving boat ramps;
- Converting former roadways into hiking trails.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.