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Tribes fighting for salmon on Skagit River say $30M spent by Seattle on dam relicensing is 'mind-boggling'

Skagit Valley tribes say they're struggling to compete with the 'deep pockets' of Seattle as they look to protect salmon along the river.

DARRINGTON, Wash. — In its quest to relicense its hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River, Seattle City Light has spent approximately $30 million, records show.

The vast majority has gone toward paying scientific specialists, but other expenses include paying consultants to facilitate virtual meetings, craft strategic communications and provide legal advice. Seven law firms, as well as inside counsel, have been involved in the dam relicensing and associated lawsuits filed in response to the process. 

City Light pays some attorneys as much as $700 per hour, legal contracts show.

The rural tribes of the Skagit Valley, who have depended on the river and the salmon in it since time immemorial, say the amount the city has spent is "astonishing." They’ve been at odds with Seattle City Light throughout the relicensing process over how best to operate the dams under conditions of a new license. 

Tribal members say they’re fighting to bring back salmon that are on the brink of extinction and Seattle’s dams are part of the problem. One tribal elder called the amount of money "mind-boggling" and said the process is "bleeding every resource" from the tribes as they try to keep up with meetings, legal input and deadlines.

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Seattle City Light CEO and General Manager Debra Smith said she understands the frustration of tribes that have limited resources. 

“That’s challenging,” Smith said. 

To offset expenses, City Light offered the three participating treaty tribes $25,000 each to participate in the process more easily. One tribe, the La Conner-based Swinomish Tribe, accepted the offer. The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe declined. Tribal representatives said the amount was too small to be of consequence and could give the appearance of a conflict of interest.

“It was kind of offensive to the tribe,” Sauk-Suiattle attorney Jack Fiander said. “It looks like you’ve been bought off for $25,000. The tribe wasn’t willing to accept that because it would look like a conflict of interest when you’re taking the money.”

Smith said the offer was made in good faith.

“I’m sorry that (the tribes) feel that way. Certainly, the intent was never to insult,” Smith said.

The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, located in Darrington, is one of the smallest and poorest of all tribes in the state.

“Wow, [$30 million is] a lot of money,” said Robert Howard, general manager of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe. “Just to avoid doing the right thing? They could have taken that [money] and applied it to something equitable, something fair, something that sustains the environment and sustains the salmon. That’s hard to understand.”

For nearly 100 years, Seattle City Light has operated three dams on the Skagit River to provide roughly 20% of the city’s electricity. When the dams were built, no one consulted the Native Americans. According to the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, construction desecrated ancestral burial grounds and important cultural sites. The dams create reservoirs that now cover up sacred lands that are no longer accessible to tribal members.  

The dams also block off nearly 40% of the river to salmon species in dire need of additional habitat to spawn, grow and recover.

Seattle’s dams - Gorge, Diablo, and Ross - are some of the few in the region that do not include infrastructure to allow fish to get above and below the project. The tribes and government natural resource agencies say the dams harm salmon and starving orcas that depend on Chinook salmon from the Skagit for food.

“[Seattle’s paying] hired guns. I’m sure that’s their job, but we’re a small tribe. Our total tribal budget is a fraction of that, and yet we’re standing up. And yet, we’re trying to do something from our standpoint for the great good of everybody,” Howard said.

Relicensing dams through the federal government is a highly regulated process that requires years of negotiations, scientific study and legal filings. Seattle began working on initial steps in 2018. The city has budgeted nearly $70 million for the entire relicensing through 2026. Much of the money will fund scientific studies that stakeholders asked City Light to undertake.

Smith of City Light said the utility is being a good steward of taxpayer money and is spending what is necessary to ensure a high-quality license that will last between 30 and 50 years.

“The most important thing is for us is to come through this process with constructive relationships with the partners that we’ve been working with for years and we will be working with for many years to come. [We want] to come through with a license that supports the ecosystem, supports the fish, supports people, air, birds, water, you name it,” Smith said.

Seattle City Light: ‘No evil intent’

Smith conceded the first two years of negotiations were laden with conflict and there was little progress as utility representatives made strategic mistakes by not listening well enough to stakeholder concerns and viewpoints. Those groups include the three treaty tribes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service, NOAA Fisheries, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and Skagit County government.

“Clearly, things were not going the way they needed to. Were those dollars that were being spent at the time being spent in the most productive way? No. That’s why we made the change that we made,” Smith said. “We have no evil intent. We are just as capable as anyone else of misstepping. But the thing I want people to know about me more than anything is that if I misstep, I’ll step back and fix what I broke and apologize and move on.”

Seattle receives millions in salmon project funding

Since the city began the dam relicensing process in 2018, the utility has been spending and asking for money. Between 2018 and 2020, the state has funded six grant requests from Seattle City Light, according to the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office.

The grants total approximately $4 million and, according to state documents, are to be used for acquiring land “to protect high-quality Chinook habitat in the Skagit River system.”

Critics say when Seattle accepts state money, other groups suffer the consequences.

“Unfortunately, what happens in Seattle doesn’t stay in Seattle – it impacts the whole state, costing taxpayers and salmon on projects that don’t get done elsewhere,” said Todd Myers, director of the Center for the Environment at the Washington Policy Center. Myers is also a member of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council.

Between 2018 and 2020, dozens of smaller groups had their salmon recovery grant proposals rejected, state records show. Those include proposals from the Lummi Nation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Quileute Tribe of the Quileute, the Asotin County Conservation District, the Nooksack Tribe, the city of Bellingham, the Chehalis Basin Land Trust and the Nisqually Land Trust.

“Other parts of the state, rural areas, where salmon recovery and salmon projects are very important, they don’t have those deep pockets. So, when you take money away from the state that could go to those places you are really doubly harming areas that desperately need that money and where salmon need habitat.”

Smith said the city does not have unlimited resources, and the utility will not apologize for accepting state funding it's entitled to.

“A lot of times we have projects that are really important, and they meet the [grant] criteria,” Smith said. “So, I don’t feel bad for applying for those types of grants. We don’t always get them. There are far more instances where we didn’t get them and where we’ve wondered the same thing: 'Wow, how come we weren’t successful?' But when we are, I feel like that’s a good thing and we’ll continue to [apply].”

Tribal members said there’s no price you can put on the Skagit River and the salmon who call it home.

“You can spend a billion dollars on this issue and we’re still going to fight as long as it’s going to take to ensure that the world knows what’s happening here. To ensure that the local stakeholders and just common folks understand what’s right,” said Howard of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe. “Doing the right thing doesn’t have to have that big of a price tag. Just do what’s right.”

Smith said City Light is now on a positive, cost-efficient path with tribes and agencies dedicated to the Skagit Project relicensing.

“I feel like we’re in a very good place. We’re being frugal, we’re being careful,” Smith said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today with our partners had we not [reset our approach].”