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Skagit County: Seattle City Light 'getting away with' investing little in salmon recovery

Compared to other regional hydropower operators City Light is at the bottom of the list in money spent helping fish. The utility calls the comparison "unfair."

Of the hydroelectric dam operators in the Pacific Northwest, so far Seattle City Light has contributed the least amount of money for salmon recovery, according to federal data.

The city operates three dams on the Skagit River: Gorge, Diablo and Ross, which together generate approximately 20% of the electricity used by Seattle residents and businesses. Hydroelectric power is considered “green power,” because no fossil fuels are burned, and no direct emissions are released into the atmosphere.

But energy generated by dams and powerhouses comes at a cost to the environment. Scientists have long known that dams hurt fish by blocking off spawning habitat. They also trap gravel, fine sediment and wood needed to keep habitat from disappearing downstream.

That’s why 35 years ago Congress amended the Federal Power Act to address these impacts. Since 1986, the law states that to gain a license to operate a hydroelectric project, a utility must “adequately and equitably protect, mitigate damages to, and enhance fish and wildlife…affected by the development, operation, and management of the project.”

Seattle’s dams on the Skagit obtained its last license for the project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 1995, nine years after the mandate to mitigate and protect fish and wildlife. Under that license, Seattle agreed to spend $6.3 million to help fish. Later, the public utility voluntarily invested an additional $5.5 million to support efforts to specifically recover species that were placed on the endangered species list. 

Seattle City Light has spent the combined $12 million on acquiring more than 13,400 acres of conservation land in the Skagit Watershed. They’ve developed and restored salmon habitat and teamed up with government and tribal scientists on multi-million-dollar research projects.

But that investment doesn’t come close to what other dam operators have contributed since the change to the Federal Power Act.

Five years after Seattle’s last relicensing, Tacoma Power, in 2000, invested $40 million on its Cowlitz River Project. The money was used to build infrastructure to help fish, including Coho salmon, Chinook and steelhead, get safely around the Mossyrock and Mayfield Dams.

Six years after Seattle City Light’s relicensing, Eugene Water and Electric spent $64 million on the McKenzie River to help protect fish with upgrades, including fish screens.

In 2002, Chelan County Public Utility District invested $510 million to install fish passage around the Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia River.

Skagit County’s natural resources attorney, Will Honea, calculated the investments made by Northwest utilities per each project’s megawatt capacity. His department concluded Seattle City Light has invested 37 times less than the regional average to help salmon recover.

“It’s outrageous," Honea said. "That’s not environmental justice. We have to do this together. And Seattle is just not contributing at a reasonable level, and that seems fairly inconsistent with the moral authority they claim on environmental issues quite frequently."

'Unfair' and 'misleading' comparison

Seattle City Light executives said comparing their project to others in the region is “unfair” and “misleading.” Representatives said their license is the oldest in the region and shouldn’t be held up to newer licenses, because environmental laws are tougher now and would naturally require more investment.

“Some have compared Seattle City Light’s ‘fish investment costs’ to other hydropower projects in terms of dollars spent per megawatt of generation. This is an inaccurate and misleading comparison since these projects operate under different environments and hence are not easily compared by a simple dollars-to-megawatt metric. The goal is to responsibly mitigate the effect of the hydropower project on the surrounding ecosystem and in this regard, each project is unique,” wrote City Light Director of Communications Julie Moore in an email to KING 5.

Seattle is seeking a new license from FERC to operate its project for decades to come. The current license expires in 2025, but heated negotiations between the utility and stakeholders on the terms and conditions under a new contract have been underway for more than two years.

“I think a better comparison will be to look at what is our investment level post-relicense compared to others,” said Debra Smith, general manager and CEO of Seattle City Light. “I don’t think it’s quite fair to compare a recently relicensed project with something that was relicensed, or last licensed, so many years ago.”

Stakeholders said it is reasonable to look at and compare what other projects have been implemented in the region to help with salmon recovery, Native American ways of life and treaty rights. On the Skagit, Chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout are now on the endangered species list, at risk of becoming extinct.

“I think it’s absolutely fair to compare City Light to other projects," Upper Skagit Indian Tribe Managing Biologist Jon-Paul Shannahan said. "Other operators with lesser impacts have demonstrated a willingness to mitigate their impacts and do what’s right. Seattle City Light has proposed nothing (in the current negotiations) except ways to make more money."

“Seattle doesn’t want to be compared to the significant salmon investment that other Pacific Northwest dam operators have made," Honea, of Skagit County, said. "But right now, Seattle is fighting stakeholders tooth and nail on fish passage and other studies needed to craft appropriate environmental policy. Seattle’s motivation is clear: they don’t want to spend an equitable amount of money to help save salmon on the Skagit."

While Seattle’s mitigation efforts have focused on habitat acquisition, restoration and research, the utility has not invested in the big-dollar project of installing fish passage. That explains why the city’s salmon investment figure is lower than others.

For decades, Seattle City Light has said fish passage would be a waste of money because their dams don’t adversely impact salmon. In public records and public messaging, the utility has maintained their dams were coincidentally built above natural fish barriers including rugged canyons and massive boulders. But now scientists from Skagit Basin tribes and every state and federal natural resource agency do not believe in the natural fish barrier theory.

Work by the National Park Service and the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe in the last six years has produced evidence that salmon and other species can navigate the areas Seattle City Light says would keep fish out.

“[The National Park Service] has surveyed [the areas in question] and not found any evidence of a fish passage barrier between the Gorge Powerhouse and Gorge Dam using the best available science and accepted methods established by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife,” wrote Park Service scientists in a public document submitted to the FERC in October for the relicensing.

“[Recent work] support the Puget Sound [Salmon] Recovery Plan conclusions that no insurmountable barrier exists downstream of Gorge Dam and that the dam is the conclusive barrier for upstream passage and access to potential suitable habitat for anadromous species,” wrote scientists from NOAA Fisheries in documentation filed with FERC in October.

Despite every stakeholder agency involved concluding that salmon could benefit from accessing the additional 37% of the river blocked by the dams through a type of fish passage system, representatives from Seattle City Light wouldn’t agree to study the idea of fish passage until December. 

The utility agreed to study the possibility of fish passage under the new license over all three dams the day after KING 5 aired its first story in this series in February.

“[Seattle City Light] has only been interested in their status quo, the status quo of their bottom dollar,” Shannahan said. “There’s been no signal or offering of theirs to do what’s right for fish.”

Seattle City Light said it’s “factually inaccurate” to say that the utility has spent $12 million on fisheries mitigation and enhancement on the Skagit. They estimate the contribution to be $30 million when factoring in potential lost revenue due to the way they adjust flows to protect spawning grounds, incubation and rearing downstream of the project.

“By prioritizing salmon over power production, FERC estimated City Light would lose $23.7 million in 1990 dollars ($51.4 million in 2020 dollars),” wrote Moore of City Light. “And again, the comparison of just two spending categories misses the fact that ecosystems are much more complex and interdependent. The work we do to diversify wildlife and improve forest health is also critical to fish restoration.”

Seattle City Light General Manager Smith said the public utility is prepared to spend what’s necessary to protect salmon under the new license.

“[We have] no interest in being on the cheap here. We want to do the right thing. We want to follow the science,” Smith said. “And we’ll be able to negotiate for the specific terms of the license in ways that are meaningful and responsive to the concerns of all the folks who count on the river and the watershed for their livelihood and their lifestyle.”

In April, Seattle City Light committed to spending $20 million on 33 studies to help inform the conditions under a new license. But 17 stakeholder organizations, including three Indian tribes, NOAA Fisheries, the National Park Service, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and Skagit County government filed public documents this month criticizing the utility’s continued approach.

“Absent basic scientific data, state and federal agencies cannot carry out their legal responsibilities to protect the Skagit River, recover salmon and orca, and ensure that the Tribe’s treaty rights are meaningful and respected,” Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chair Steve Edwards wrote. “We do not understand why City Light has rejected calls for basic scientific data to inform the dam relicensing process.”

“If the people living in Seattle understood how little they were contributing to salmon recovery efforts, they would be astounded. They would push to have this inequity corrected,” said Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki. “It’s not too late. Seattle City Light can change their approach. They can fix their approach, but they have to step up and take responsibility. And this is the time to do it.”

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