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Skagit County civil prosecutor Will Honea, lower right, presented a resolution to the county commissioners, center row, on Monday about the need for fish passage at Seattle’s Skagit River dams.

The Skagit County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution Monday asking Seattle City Light to commit to a “regionally equitable salmon investment” in the Skagit River watershed as the utility seeks a new federal license for its three dams on the river.

“This is really important to the health and future of this county,” Commissioner Peter Browning said before the resolution was passed unanimously.

The Skagit is the largest river in the Puget Sound region and home to all five salmon species as well as steelhead. Two of those species are listed under the Endangered Species Act, along with orca whales that depend on some of those fish for food.

As a result, tribal and nontribal fisheries have been restricted for many years. Balancing water supply for fish, farms and local communities has become a point of conflict throughout the watershed. And the focus of Seattle City Light on fish habitat enhancement downstream of its dams is raising concerns for farmland.

The county’s resolution states that “the competing priorities of fish passage and habitat enhancement have become a source of unhelpful discord in our community, distracting from our shared goal of protecting and restoring the Skagit fisheries resource.”

Skagit County leadership has been discussing these issues for about a year and a half, since Seattle City Light began its relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

The county commissioners have written several letters during that time to FERC, to the city of Seattle and to the law firm representing Seattle City Light. The county also filed a lawsuit in August in an effort to obtain financial information about the electricity produced by the Skagit River dams.

Skagit County civil prosecutor Will Honea said during the county commissioner’s meeting Monday that the resolution is meant to make the county’s stance official and clear.

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Skagit County civil prosecutor Will Honea presented a resolution to the county commissioners on Monday about the need for fish passage at Seattle’s Skagit River dams.

The county agrees with federal, state and tribal representatives who have said fish passage is a necessity for the Skagit River dams that provide electricity to the city of Seattle.

“The preferred mitigation alternative for Seattle City Light in relicensing its three dams on the Skagit is to put in fish passage much like was installed on the Baker River system when Puget Sound Energy obtained a federal license 15 years ago or so,” Honea said. “We can see it is working very effectively on the Baker, providing substantial treaty and nontreaty harvest.”

Sockeye salmon are trapped at the lower Baker River dam, then trucked to Baker Lake, where a recreational fishing season has become a bright spot among diminishing fishing opportunities in the area.

Honea said that success on the Baker River, which is a tributary of the Skagit, suggests the potential for fisheries recovery in the watershed above the Skagit River dams could be much more significant.

“The capacity ... in the 37% of the Skagit River that is behind Seattle’s dams could host a substantially larger population of salmon and really start to deal with the problem of declining treaty resources as well as salmon harvest for our community,” he told the commissioners.

Honea said the amount of money Seattle has invested in fish habitat conservation and restoration is minimal compared to the cost of fish passage projects done at dams elsewhere. The county resolution is asking for more financial investment in fish recovery, and for Seattle to match the obligations met by dam operators on other Pacific Northwest rivers.

“All the other dams in the Northwest when they’ve relicensed had to come up with some fish passage program, so this is just asking (for Seattle to do) what everyone else in the Northwest has had to do — and it’s really important for all of us,” Commissioner Ron Wesen said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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