At tribes’ urging, fish passage to be developed at Skagit River dams

After several years resisting the requests of some treaty tribes and government agencies, Seattle City Light has committed to adding fish passage at its dams in the years ahead as part of the federal relicensing of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.

“Through our collective perseverance, they are doing the right thing,” said Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “At least it’s a very positive first step.”

Prior to committing to fish passage in its final license application, submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in April, Seattle City Light argued for decades that salmon were never capable of reaching habitat upstream of Gorge Dam, the lowest of its three dams, because of steep terrain.

Now, Seattle City Light has agreed to use fish passage around all three dams: Gorge, Diablo and Ross.

“Six generations of Upper Skagit have lived with the effects of hydropower,” Schuyler said. “Now, future generations will benefit from having salmon spawn in the upper watershed again.”

Because of the remote locations and towering heights of the dams, the likely method of fish passage will be to collect and truck fish to upriver spawning grounds.

That method has been successful on other dam systems, including at Puget Sound Energy’s Baker River dams on the tributary to the Skagit River. At Seattle City Light’s dams, such a method will require investments in traps, as well as in building roads within the North Cascades National Park Service Complex.

“This is a massive undertaking,” said Schuyler, whose tribe has already hired contractors to help with studies and plan development leading up to construction. “We plan on being actively involved every step of the way, and to reduce timelines wherever we can. Obviously, the salmon and the river need help now.”

Seattle City Light plans to spend $40 million to study and pilot fish passage at the dams, which will include tagging and monitoring relocated fish. The substantial costs of the new road, trap and operations will come later.

In addition to Upper Skagit, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe sought fish passage measures at the dams, which provide about 20% of the electricity consumed in Seattle.

“These dams damaged the whole river system,” Swinomish Chair Steve Edwards told The Seattle Times. “Seattle City Light has gotten cheap electricity at our cost. At the end of the day, we were the ones that paid for it.”

Fish passage at the dams, however, is just one of several factors impacting the health of Skagit River salmon. Swinomish leadership remains concerned about the quantity and quality of fish habitat elsewhere in the watershed, including in the estuary where the river meets the Salish Sea.

“Swinomish has been clear all along that fish passage is not a magic solution to Skagit salmon and steelhead recovery; We must be at least as committed to habitat restoration in the 100 river miles below the dams in order for fish passage to be successful,” Edwards said.

The tribe points to the federally approved 2005 Skagit Chinook Recovery Plan, which made clear that a lack of estuary, floodplain and riparian habitat are all limiting factors to salmon recovery, and each needs to be addressed.

“We need to follow the science and get busy restoring essential habitat for the new fish we hope to pass downstream. It is up to us to ensure this is done right, so that the next seven generations have the ability to exercise their Treaty rights,” Edwards said.

Above: Scott Schuyler of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe stands before the Gorge Powerhouse in October 2022 while discussing the impact Seattle’s three dams, upstream of the powerhouse, have had on the Skagit River, its fish and the Upper Skagit people. Photo and story: Kimberly Cauvel