Seattle City Light announced Wednesday that in response to requests from the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe and other stakeholders it has broadened its study plan for the relicensing of its Skagit River dams.
The utility said the revised study plan it submitted Wednesday morning to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) doubles its financial commitment to at least $20 million and increases the number of topics to be studied to 33.
“This is incredibly important work,” said Debra Smith, Seattle City Light’s general manager and CEO. “It’s important to the people who live on the Skagit River, it’s really important to the city and people here that benefit from the power provided by the dams ... and it’s really important to the way of life of the tribes.”
While the revised study plan wasn’t made available Wednesday afternoon, Smith and Seattle City Light Natural Resources and Hydro Licensing Director Chris Townsend said the plan expands the fish passage and habitat studies, and proposes establishing a fund to support Skagit River salmon recovery.
“We are solidly committed to taking an ecosystem approach,” Townsend said. “We’ve expanded well beyond what a typical licensee would do.”
Smith and Townsend also said the revised plan includes immediately restoring water between Gorge Dam and Gorge Powerhouse in what is called a bypass reach.
“It is our intent to re-water that reach and not wait for a new license to do so,” Smith said.
Townsend said once water is reintroduced into the 2.6-mile reach, the utility will continue releasing water into that area.
“We heard the Upper Skagit tribe ... when they said the dewatering of the bypass reach between the Gorge Dam and powerhouse was really culturally significant and damaging to them, even still today,” he said. “We intend to keep water in it moving forward under the new license.”
The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project operated by Seattle City Light includes the Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams and their powerhouses. It provides about one-fifth of the electricity consumed in the Seattle area.
The current license, issued by FERC in 1995, expires April 30, 2025, and Seattle is seeking a new multi-decade license.
Along with a pre-application document, Seattle City Light proposed a year ago 24 studies for the relicensing. In December, the utility filed a revised study plan that included 28 studies.
After stakeholder government agencies, tribes and nonprofits — also called license participants — made noise in recent months about the peril of threatened Skagit River chinook salmon and steelhead trout, as well as the region’s endangered Southern Resident orca population that eats chinook at sea, Seattle City Light continued expanding its study plan.
“We are balancing a lot of competing interests and outcomes: The need for clean energy, and mitigating for impacts on the river’s wildlife, environment and people,” Smith said.
She’s hopeful that in the face of climate change the utility can continue providing emissions-free, renewable energy to its Seattle-area customers while reducing its negative impacts on the Skagit River watershed.
“Hydroelectric power doesn’t burn fuel, but the dams do affect the environment ... and the Skagit River, we know, is vital to salmon runs and the Puget Sound’s orca population,” Smith said. “This relicensing process is our opportunity to do new studies and reevaluate our approach.”
Stakeholders have until May 6 to comment on Seattle City Light’s revised study plan. FERC will then review the plan and associated comments, and will issue a study plan determination by May 21.
Any disputes that persist over the study plan will be addressed by a dispute resolution panel this summer, according to FERC’s licensing schedule.
For more information: seattle.gov/city-light/in-the-community/current-projects/skagit-relicensing.