Diablo Lake

Transmission lines cut across the sky over the turquoise Diablo Lake on Aug. 8, 2019, framing Seattle City Light’s hydroelectric Diablo Dam in the background.

The relicensing process for the three dams along the Skagit River continues to spark debate on whether fish ever used habitat upstream of the dams before they were built.

Matt Cutlip of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that oversees hydroelectric licensing said this kind of debate is new to him.

“I’ve never seen a situation like this before where there’s actually a dispute about whether fish ever even did use habitat above one of the dams or two of the dams. This is a very unusual case,” Cutlip said Tuesday during an online meeting hosted by Seattle City Light, which operates the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.

Seattle City Light, FERC and stakeholders are in the process of discussing study plans meant to determine what will be allowed and required under a new license. Several meetings are set through March in an effort to hash out disagreements before data collection gets underway in the spring.

At some points during the six-hour discussion Tuesday about river flow, fish genetics and fish passage studies, tensions ran high.

“There is major disagreement around this issue,” said Tim Thompson, a consultant working with the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe.

He said Seattle City Light’s proposed study plan that is part of the relicensing process doesn’t adequately address fish habitat and passage issues brought up by tribal, state and federal representatives.

“A host of fish biologists ... fundamentally disagree with your approach,” Thompson told representatives of Seattle City Light. “These agencies and tribes and entities spent months developing these study proposals. We would like an explanation for why our study requests were denied.”

Seattle City Light staff including Skagit License Manager Andrew Bearlin said the reasons are outlined in the proposed study plan.

Representatives of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and other organizations said their efforts to highlight gaps in information on fish passage — including some they believe are required by the federal Endangered Species Act and tribal treaty rights — appear ignored.

Laurie Beale of the National Marine Fisheries Service said understanding the potential for fish to use habitat above the dams is important. During a Jan. 6 meeting, Elizabeth Babcock of the National Marine Fisheries Service also commented on the issue.

“We have significant natural resources interests in the basin, including ESA — Endangered Species Act — listed species there,” she said.

Those species include Puget Sound chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout. Each is listed as threatened.

A major point of contention when it comes to those species and fish passage is an area between Gorge Dam and Gorge Powerhouse called the bypass reach. Seattle City Light asserts the stretch is too steep and rocky for fish to move through the reach, but has agreed to take a fresh look at the possibility, including through the development of a flow model.

“The point of this study really is ... that if under certain flow conditions the passage of fish could be facilitated, we’d like to understand: ‘What are those conditions?’” Seattle City Light Senior Aquatic Ecologist Jeff Fisher said Tuesday.

If the results suggest fish could get through the bypass reach, he said the utility will consider options for assisting those fish, or helping them elsewhere in the watershed.

“What are our options here for facilitating fish passage, or for facilitating a whole bunch of other potential beneficial habitat work?” Fisher said.

Representatives of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe said part of the tribe’s frustration with that plan is that it ignores evidence provided by tribal and federal agencies.

“Direct observations are always better than a computer model,” Upper Skagit natural resources biologist Jon-Paul Shannahan said. “We have direct, observational evidence.”

Seattle City Light fish biologist Erin Lowery said the flow model will answer important questions such as what velocity of water, and therefore discharge from the dam, might be needed to support fish passage.

Cutlip of FERC said that kind of information will also help the licensing agency determine what level of mitigation might be required.

“It makes a difference if one fish can get there or thousands of fish can get there,” he said. “What realistically can be achieved? ... We’re going to have to balance that the benefits to the species are justified in light of the costs (of implementing passage).”

The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project runs from Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem to the Canadian border, where Ross Lake extends into British Columbia.

The Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams and powerhouses were constructed between 1919 and 1952.

The dams were last licensed in 1995. That license expires April 30, 2025, and Seattle City Light is seeking a new 50-year license.

“It’s a huge, epic undertaking,” Seattle City Light’s Bearlin said Jan. 6 of the multiyear relicensing process.

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

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