By Jim Feehan
Skagit Valley Herald
Efforts to restore salmon have put new wrinkles on the debate over the future of dams on the Skagit River and its tributaries.
Puget Sound Energy is beginning the process of renewing its licenses for its Baker River hydroelectric project.
The Bellevue-based private utility company will hold two meetings in Skagit County Thursday to discuss plans to relicense its two dams and powerhouses on the Baker River near Concrete.
Baker is an extremely important project,” said Connie Freeland, Puget Sound Energy’s Baker River Project Relicensing manager.
Adult sockeye salmon spawn in September and October and fry emerge in early spring, then rear in Baker Lake for a year or two before being trucked downstream.
Upper and lower Baker dams shut off sockeye downstream migration. A pipe and net system called a “gulper” was created to help sockeye over the dams but failed. Young sockeye are now trucked around Baker dam and released downriver when they are ready to head to the ocean.
The run is doing well after hitting rock bottom in 1985 at 99 fish. The goal is 4,000, but is subject to review.
The sockeye is not on the threatened or endangered list under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The system generates 175 megawatts of power and is considered economically viable for Puget Sound Energy, Freeland said.
The Lower Baker facility began operating in 1925, while the Upper Baker was completed in 1959.
By 2004, PSE must file an application for a new license to operate the hydroelectric project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A license issued in l956 expires on May 1, 2006.
Typically, the federal agency issues licenses for between 30 and 50 years.
Seattle City Light — which operates Diablo, Gorge, Ross dams and a small facility at Newhalem Creek — was relicensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1995 after a 17-year process, said utility spokeswoman Sharon Bennett. The license was for 30 years, she said.
Relicensing of dams can be a lengthy process. Puget Sound Energy wants the federal government to grant it an alternative licensing process, which would speed up regulatory review and acceptance of the license application, she said.
“The big advantage is this involves people earlier, and it’s a more collaborative approach involving more local input,” Freeland said.
Representatives from state and local agencies, as well as tribal officials, have been invited to the meetings, Freeland said.
Larry Wasserman of the Skagit System Cooperative, a fisheries management consortium of three tribes (the Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle) that have fishing rights on the Skagit River said his organization will play a role in the relicensing discussion.
“The Skagit River tribes are involved in trying to recover some of the losses incurred due to the construction and operation of these facilities,” Wasserman said.
In the next 47 years, 60 hydroelectric plants in Washington state will have to decide whether to renew their licenses and face new requirements.
As a result of the new regulations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Marine Fisheries Service will require hydroelectric projects to keep less water from rivers in reservoirs to improve salmon habitat downstream.
Some hydroelectric projects are considering abandoning their power-generating plants and allowing lake levels to drop or dry up altogether rather than face new requirements.
In most cases, increasing the river flow and reducing the level of lakes will return them closer to the level they were before hydroelectric projects turned them into a haven for outdoor recreationists.
In November, the Skokomish Tribe sued the federal government and the city of Tacoma for $5.8 billion, alleging damages dating to the 1920s from a hydroelectric project.
The tribe believes the money should be paid to compensate for economic and cultural impacts of the Cushman Project since 1924, when all the water was diverted from the North Fork of the Skokomish Rivet through two power plants and into Hood Canal.
The lawsuit is pending.
Last July, the federal government offered Tacoma a 40-year license to continue operation of the power plants and two dams in the project.
The license would require Tacoma to increase the minimum North Fork Skokomish River flow from 30 cubic feet per second to 240 cubic feet per second, provide fish passage around the dams and build new fishery facilities, among other things.
Last month, the feds rejected a decade-old application to relicense an existing dam in Washington: the Enloe Dam, located on the Similkameen River, near Oroville in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border.
The regulatory agency concluded the licensee, Public Utility District No.1 of Okanogan County, could not afford the cost of installing and maintaining a fish ladder, said Celeste Miller, a spokeswoman with the federal agency.
Dams have been blamed for the loss of salmon runs, and environmentalists have sought the removal of dams throughout the state.
Utilities want to continue to produce cheap hydroelectric power from the dams. Also in their corner are wheat growers and other agricultural interests who want the ability to barge their product along the Snake and Columbia river system.
Skagit Valley Herald
Mount Vernon, WA
March 29, 2000