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Puget Sound Energy shows how salmon can prosper in a river blocked by hydroelectric dams

Stakeholders say Seattle City Light could learn from another utility, Puget Sound Energy, on how to better admit impacts for their dams and find solutions.

SEATTLE — In the mid-80s Baker River sockeye salmon were teetering on the brink of extinction with only 99 adults coming back to the river to spawn. That dismal number was a wakeup call to Puget Sound Energy (PSE), a private utility, that operates two dams on the river to generate electricity.

PSE began rethinking strategies for helping salmon that were blocked off from habitat they could use to spawn and grow. Eventually, through a dam relicensing process that involved collaboration with three Skagit Valley Indian tribes, Skagit County government, state and federal regulators and environmental nonprofits, PSE agreed to a $170 million investment to improve conditions for fish.

The settlement agreement that outlines the terms and conditions of PSE’s current license was signed in 2004.

The agreement paid off. PSE installed what’s called a “trap and haul” operation -- a sophisticated process of trucking fish above and below their dams that has helped the species make a comeback.

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“We’ve reached records on both adult returns and juvenile out migrations. [There are] numbers never seen before,” said Arnie Aspelund, PSE senior resource scientist. Aspelund led the aquatics negotiations for PSE during the most recent relicensing of their dams. “It was a very collaborative process through and through. So the process has been very, very fulfilling.”

From the low point of just 99 adult fish returning in 1985, the sockeye runs increased to a record 32,735 in 2015. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), 15,896 sockeye returned in 2020.

“We’re pleased but the job’s not done. We’re committed to this,” Aspelund said.

Because the Baker River is a tributary of the Skagit, many stakeholders compare PSE’s fisheries operation to that of Seattle City Light’s on the Skagit River where the public utility operates three dams. Seattle City Light is currently negotiating a new license with the same stakeholders involved in PSE’s relicensing.

The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s lead negotiator in the PSE process said working with Seattle City Light has been a much different experience.

“It’s been a lot more difficult [with City Light],” said Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit tribe. “I really feel like [PSE] accepted responsibility for what had occurred in the past and were willing to step up to the plate and be open to new ideas…that work for the tribe and for the salmon. We don’t think there’s the same openness or willingness to accept responsibility for past harms [with Seattle].”

Hydroelectric harms include hurting fish by blocking off habitat and degrading Native American ways of life. With salmon runs in decline, including Chinook that are on the endangered species list, tribes such as the Upper Skagit cannot exercise their treaty right to fish in usual and accustomed ways. Reservoirs created by dams on the Skagit have flooded Upper Skagit ancestral lands and important spiritual sites.

“Most of the conversations with Seattle City Light center around assessing impacts, denying impacts or questioning impacts [from their dams] as opposed to looking for a path forward that works for everybody,” Schuyler said.

The top executive for Seattle City Light has apologized to stakeholders for the first two years of rocky negotiations and vowed to continue with a new approach to find common ground.

“We’ve made a lot of changes and we are really committed to doing things differently than we were up until January of this year,” said Debra Smith, CEO and general manager of Seattle City Light. “I’m glad for the Upper Skagit [Indian Tribe] that they had a good experience working with PSE on the Baker Project and I hope that a couple years from now they’ll look back and they’ll say ‘boy it was a rough start, but we wound up really having a good process with Seattle City Light.’”

PSE built its first Baker Dam to generate electricity in 1925. Right off the bat the company worked to mitigate for the harm they brought to the ecosystem. The first efforts involved building fish ladders and aerial trams to haul sockeye, but nothing worked well enough to get the species back on its feet.

By working with stakeholders, PSE built a fish hatchery, restored shoreline spawning habitat and installed an upgraded, innovative fish passage system. 

The company uses guide nets to move young fish from the two reservoirs into what are called floating surface collectors, the fish are then funneled into holding tanks and counted by hand before the juvenile fish are loaded into steel crates. After that, crews boat the box of fish to shore, then taxi them around the dam, and next the fish are spit into tanks for resting before sending them down a pipe back into the Baker River. Once safely around the dams, the young fish are free to swim down river and eventually out to sea. Adult fish are trapped and hauled around the dams as they come back to spawn years later.

“It’s a tremendous success story,” said Ron Roberts, vice president of energy supply for PSE. Roberts said they agreed to invest $170 million in fisheries because it aligned with the company’s values.

“One of our big values is we do the right thing," said Roberts, "and to me Baker River is a great example of doing the right thing.”

After years of sitting on the banks of the Baker River due to the low abundance of sockeye runs, for the Upper Skagit tribe the return of salmon means a return to practicing their treaty right to fish. This year it’s the only river in the region producing enough sockeye to do so.

“It was huge for the tribe,” Schuyler said. “This is the sole bright spot in Puget Sound and on the West Coast, I believe, where you have a little bit of harvestable fish and you can thank the utility working with the agencies and the tribes to develop this enhancement program.”

“We align with the values we believe our customers adhere to – that salmon are a culture of the Northwest. They’re an extremely important piece of tribal culture. It’s everyone pulling in the same direction that delivers the kind of results that we’re seeing,” said Aspelund of PSE.

PSE provides electricity to 1.2 million customers in western Washington. The license to operate the Baker Hydroelectric Project is 50 years in length and expires in 2058. PSE executives estimate the investments on the Baker Project cost their customers an additional $1 to their bills.

Seattle City Light's license on the Skagit expires in 2025. A new license could last between 30 and 50 years.