Despite Seattle City Light expanding its study plan associated with the relicensing process of its Skagit River dams, at least 17 commenting government agencies, tribes and nonprofits wrote in letters last week that they remain dissatisfied.
From the National Marine Fisheries Service to the Skagit County Board of Commissioners to the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, those with legal, cultural and economic stakes in how Seattle City Light manages the dams used terms such as “inadequate” and “data gaps” to describe Seattle’s revised study plan.
The plan, which was expanded in April, includes 33 studies. Nineteen of those were modified based on earlier feedback and five are entirely new since the original study plan was released in December 2020.
“Unfortunately, despite these improvements, substantial and fundamental shortcomings remain ... regarding the type and method of scientific data and analysis proposed,” Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chair Steve Edwards wrote in the tribe’s comment letter.
Those shortcomings, according to tribal, state and federal representatives, might inhibit verification that requirements of federal laws as well as treaty obligations are being met.
“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,” Edwards wrote. “We do not understand why City Light has rejected calls for basic scientific data to inform the dam relicensing process.”
Seattle City Light operates the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project on the upper Skagit River that includes three dam-powerhouse systems: Gorge, Diablo and Ross. The city utility is seeking a new multidecade license to continue operating the dams after its current license expires in 2025.
Comments on Seattle City Light’s latest study plan were due May 6. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) will now review the study plan and the comments on the plan and decide what to require Seattle City Light to study.
Across national, state and local levels, the latest comments accuse Seattle City Light of failing to acknowledge the breadth of its impact on the Skagit River watershed and of refusing to commit to adequate research.
“We have one opportunity to get this right, and science must lead the way,” Edwards wrote.
Disagreement remains over topics including:
— How to study fish passage issues, including which government agencies would offer guidance, and whether fish historically were capable of navigating upstream of Newhalem. The National Park Service, for example, wrote that it doesn’t understand the need to study potential fish passage barriers “considering that no fish passage barriers are present ... as defined by the best available science.”
— Whether removing Gorge Dam should be evaluated. Thomas O’Keefe of the nonprofit American Whitewater wrote “American Whitewater is not actively advocating for Gorge Dam removal but we are interested in better understanding this alternative and support information requests of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe.”
— The appropriate geographic scope of study elements including water quality, sediment movement and fish habitat. Many commenting agencies want the study scope to run from the watershed’s start in Canada to the estuaries in west Skagit County.
— Necessary analysis for flood control. The Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium and Skagit County Dike District Partnership wrote together that operation of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project “exacerbates downstream flooding.”
— Necessary analysis on how floodplain and side-channel habitats in the watershed respond to river flows, and the role those habitats may play in restoring salmon populations.
— Necessary analysis for land-based wildlife that live in and migrate through the project area.
— Necessary analysis on how climate change has and will influence the watershed and Skagit River Hydroelectric Project operations.
— Where, when and how to study recreational use in the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest lands around the hydroelectric project.
With so many disagreements, the North Cascades Conservation Council — a major player in restricting the height of Ross Dam when it was built — asserts that Seattle City Light (SCL) has been combative against those with a vested interest in the health of the Skagit River watershed.
“The hallmarks of the last several months have been SCL defending its perspectives on the study plan rather than working with the license participants to improve on the plan and to accommodate the legitimate needs,” a comment letter from council board member David Fluharty states.
Fluharty wrote that the study plan does not address cumulative impacts from the project, how the current license has performed in terms of mitigating the impacts, the influence of climate change on the watershed and project operations, and concerns about the British Columbia portion of the watershed.
Many other stakeholders agree.
“These recent efforts have not gone far enough,” a comment letter from the nonprofit North Cascades Institute states.