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After years of conflict, Seattle City Light agrees to tribal demands on Skagit River

Seattle City Light has committed to adding fish passage on its three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River, under terms of a new federal license.

SEATTLE — In filings with the federal government Friday, Seattle City Light committed to adding fish passage on its three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River, under terms of a new federal license.

The move to add infrastructure to transport salmon around all three dams with a fish passage system comes after years of tension-filled re-licensing negotiations between City Light and stakeholders, including three Native American tribes of the Skagit Valley.

The city’s new commitment is a milestone achievement for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, based in Sedro-Woolley, which has led the negotiations for tribes, government regulators and local government.

“It’s a huge relief to our people. There’s a sense of optimism we didn’t have previously,” said Scott Schuyler, tribal elder and natural resources director for the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “I have to give City Light credit. The tribe spoke for the river. The tribe spoke for the salmon. Now (the city) listened.”

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe filed three lawsuits against the city of Seattle over the project’s lack of fish passage, one of which was settled this week, in part because of the city’s new commitment.

“It’s a good first step,” said Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe Chairman Nino Maltos.

Seattle’s operation on the Skagit generates approximately 20% of the city’s electricity. The license to operate the dams expires in 2025. Negotiations have been underway since 2019.

For 100 years the dams have blocked 37% of the river to salmon, which experts say need the additional habitat to spawn, grow, and increase their runs.

The utility’s top official said the public policy change is the right thing to do.

“This is what we need to do,” said City Light General Manager and CEO Debra Smith. “We flipped the switch. I asked the (city’s) team to flip the switch."

In a two-year investigation, “Skagit: River of Light and Loss,” KING 5 exposed the contentious nature of the relicensing talks. In the first two years, Seattle’s heels were dug in. City Light officials refused to even study the addition of fish passage. According to scientists at the public utility, their research showed historically, salmon weren’t able to access the habitat above their project area due to massive boulders and steep canyons below the dams.

“(Their science) is no good. It’s old. It’s not true,” said then-Upper Skagit top biologist J.P. Shanahan in 2021. “It’s kind of like big tobacco, when they used to say smoking’s not bad for you. This is big hydro saying ‘fish never got up here.’ It’s the Pacific Northwest. Fish swim upstream, that’s what they do. (There) is not an insurmountable barrier to salmon.”

The only scientists involved in the negotiations who supported the city’s theory worked for Seattle City Light.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to affect change but you have to work with what you got. And by will and determination of the tribe, and (the government agencies and the city) it’s something to be celebrated where we are today,” Schuyler said.

For years the Upper Skagit Tribe has worked to educate City Light on the “cultural trauma” the project operations have brought to their members. Salmon is at the center of their culture. They say blocking the Skagit, with no fish passage system, degrades their way of life and identity. When the dams were built a century ago on Upper Skagit ancestral lands, no one consulted the Native Americans.

“(It’s) a slow death. That’s pretty much what it is, a slow death for our culture,” said Upper Skagit member Larry Peterson in 2021.

In addition, to generate additional power, the city diverts three miles of the Skagit River out of the riverbed, leaving it completely dry in what is called the Gorge Bypass. To the Upper Skagits, this stretch of the river is their most spiritual location, where they believe life began for them.

“This river is named after our people. There’s a sense of emptiness that I feel and a sense of wrong seeing the river’s been devoid of water for so long. In the era of social justice, this is a huge injustice to the tribe and to our people,” said Schuyler in 2021.

CEO Smith said she hopes committing to fish passage is a step toward healing.

“This represents a piece of restorative justice here,” Smith said. “What I see us doing here is saying ‘we understand that we have impacted you and this was your land. And for this country, that has such a history with Native American people, such an ugly history, I think it’s really important.”

In early March, tribes, natural resource agencies, and Skagit County government made it clear they were still unhappy with City Light’s direction, after four years of discussion. The groups filed scathing comments with the federal relicensing authority about the continued lack of fish passage in the utility’s plans.

Seattle is using “outdated, anecdotal information” and “misrepresents" (how fish are able to move through the river), wrote scientists from NOAA Fisheries. 

Seattle’s approach is “without scientific support,” wrote Chairman Steve Edwards of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

“(The city’s) position appears to rely on select literature and studies yet to be delivered,” wrote Chairman Maltos of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.

“(City Light’s documents) contradict more recent knowledge,” wrote representatives of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “The status quo cannot be accepted.”

CEO Smith said those filings were a turning point for the utility.

“It was clear to me after I read all of the comments that we had a lot of work to do,” Smith said.

In a briefing with members of the media Friday, top City Light re-licensing officials revealed the estimated cost of infrastructure under a new 50-year license would be $1.38 billion.

They said environmental protection, mitigation and enhancement measures, which include the first two phases of implementing fish passage, would cost an additional $850 million over 50 years.

Finishing the fish passage project, including installing permanent facilities at Gorge Powerhouse, Gorge, Diablo and Ross Dams would cost more.

Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Tribe said it’s impossible to put a price on what bringing salmon back to the entire river would mean for their ancestors and for future generations to come.

“I know (our ancestors) are looking down on us today and are pleased with the work we are doing and encouraging us to move forward in the future,” Schuyler said. “It is our goal to start these fish returning, to get the water flowing again and to provide our people with a sense a pride. It’s going to be a good day in our history when that comes.”

In a press release issued Friday, City Light said they would be pursuing a "trap-and-haul" fish passage system where they would install fish collectors above and below the dams and build a road through the North Cascades National Park to Ross Lake. That would allow trucks, filled with fish, to go to and from the Ross reservoir.

Negotiations are not over. There are several details yet to be worked out for a final license, including how much water will be put back into the Gorge Bypass and how fish passage will be implemented. The next round of talks is scheduled for May.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Schuyler said.

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