By Polly Keary
Monroe Monitor & Valley News
Clean energy or threat to fish?
As the Snohomish PUD celebrates the coming construction of a dam on Youngs Creek near Sultan that will create enough power for about 2,000 homes, some are asking whether such small hydroelectrical projects are as green as they sound.
They are not your father ’s dam; traditional dams like Grand Coulee that inundate entire river valleys, burying whole towns and historical sites, creating massive irrigation projects for farmers while choking off the lifeblood of the salmon industry.
Rather, modern dams such as the Youngs Creek project are relatively tiny, backing up small streams far above salmon spawning grounds and generating a fraction of the power of their larger forebears.
Renewable "They’re non-polluting,” said Neil Neroutsos of the Snohomish County PUD. "They are low impact facilities, they’re built outside of wilderness areas. They aren’t going to affect fish populations. They are built above migration barriers.”
The small dams could preserve the positives of hydro, which currently provides 85% of Snohomish County ’s power, including lack of pollutants like diesel engines or toxic waste as that of nuclear power plants.
And these dams could be the wave of the future: last year the PUD bought a small dam near Monroe off Woods Creek and 10 such dams are planned for the next 10 years.
They will never be a primary source of power.
The Youngs Creek dam, planned to be much larger than the Monroe dam, will serve as many as 2,000 homes, but Snohomish County PUD serves 318,000 homes.
But microdams, as they are sometimes called, could be an important part of the PUD’s resources, aid Neroutsos.
"They tend to suit our power needs well,” he said. "Their output can be maximized in winter when power needs are higher and water is higher.”
Not only that, a dam is a lasting investment. A dam like the one at Youngs Creek could last a century.
"It’s a piece of our renewable energy program,” he said.
Flood control? Dams also have other supporters; those who hope that they could help control flooding. Some property owners in the Chehelis area are calling for the construction of two earth dams, which studies show could lower water levels in major floods by as much as four feet.
While the dams in the Snohomish River Basin will have a minimal effect on flooding at best, dam proponents in the Chehalis area are watching the Puget Sound closely.
"Some critics of the dam proposal have said they will never be built, that there is too much opposition from environmentalists in Washington State to ever let it happen,” wrote the editorial board of one Chehalis area paper. "A look deep in the heart of Pugetropolis shows indications that building smaller-scale dams is an idea on the upswing.”
Possible drawbacks But several leaders in the area are viewing that upswing with caution, even skepticism.
"Generally when we hear things like ‘small hydro ’ it makes us nervous,” said Darcy Nonebacher of America Rivers, a river advocacy group based in Seattle. "It tries to downplay things which might impact water quality. You ’re putting a structure into a living dynamic river.”
Although the dam itself is small, the construction involved in put-ting the dam in place is extensive, not to mention expensive. The construction of the dam at Youngs Creek, scheduled to begin next summer, will cost about $30 million.
"Some impacts are construction impacts,” said Snohomish County councilman Dave Somers, who represents the Sky Valley and who worked in fisheries be-fore coming to the council. "You have to put a pipeline down the mountainside. The dam funnels the stream down the mountainside and drives a generator. That’s part of the problem with these is the long pipelines.”
That could mean a couple of miles of stream that has less or no water in it, e said. The county has looked at similar projects in the past only to abandon them as not cost effective, he said.
"All these sites were looked at in the ‘80s,” said Somers. "At one point there were more than 100 small hydro projects looked at in the Snohomish River Basin. Many of those sites in the ‘80s were deemed not economically vi able.”
He and Nonebacher agree that the dams aren’t necessarily bad.
"I’m not going to say that they are all automatically bad, but they do have potential serious effects,” he said. "We’ll certainly have to take a look at all those issues.