Skagit Salmon Pay the Price for Hydropower

As Seattle City Light (SCL) begins its relicensing process with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has asked the public utility and the city of Seattle to address 100 years of harm the hydroelectric project has caused.

The current license went into effect in 1995 and expires in 2025. SCL operates the Ross, Diablo and Gorge dams on the Skagit River, where salmon, steelhead and bull trout populations have continued to decline despite being listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We want Seattle City Light to fully assess the effects of hydropower on Skagit River salmon, and then develop plans to reverse or mitigate them, if that’s even possible,” said Scott Schuyler, the Upper Skagit Tribe’s natural resources director. “The tribe is grateful for the work that SCL has done to date, but the problems facing the Skagit must now be addressed through a holistic approach.”

Not only does the continual dewatering of the river undermine salmon recovery, but building dams and drilling tunnels also caused irreversible damage to Upper Skagit ancestral villages.

“The building of these dams disturbed the resting places of our ancestors, destroyed or damaged important cultural sites, desecrated an Upper Skagit sacred village and then renamed it Newhalem,” tribal member Janelle Schuyler, Scott’s daughter, wrote in a letter to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan late last year. “The dams diminished our salmon runs by cutting off salmon passage, excluding miles and miles of former habitat, and literally have impacted the entire Skagit watershed.”

Since then, the utility has made a commitment to resource protection, environmental education, and environmental stewardship, according to its website.

“We manage the project to first manage floods, second to address fish, third to address recreation issues and fourth for power production,” Chris Townsend, SCL’s director of natural resources and hydro licensing, recently told the Skagit Valley Herald.

Scott Schuyler recognizes the positive role the dams play in flood management, but he wants SCL to own up to the negative impacts hydropower has on fish, and help assess the extent of the damage. Instead, SCL officials told him climate change and harvest management are to blame.

“They don’t have a clue what the tribes have sacrificed in terms of harvest,” he said. “Even if we quit fishing, it won’t reverse these trends. They never assessed the cumulative effects of the dams.”

Power production may be fourth on SCL’s list of priorities now, but that doesn’t rewrite the history of the city of Seattle, Janelle Schuyler reminded Mayor Durkan.

“The destruction of the Skagit sent cheap power through miles of transmission lines south to the City, spurring forth economic growth and the building of infrastructure which was the foundation of building Seattle into one of the greatest cities on the west coast,” she wrote.

“Hydropower in the Upper Skagit has provided benefits to the city of Seattle for over a century now and the disproportionate lack of reinvestment in the Skagit must be seriously looked at, because our precious river is in dire need of help,” Scott Schuyler said.

When the tribes signed the current license, none of the signatories could have predicted that the Skagit salmon populations would continue their downward spiral, and the measures outlined in the license would not be sufficient to stem the decades-long decline.

“The Upper Skagit Tribe believes that the impacts of hydropower on the Upper Skagit extend into Puget Sound and may have a negative impact on marine species like the Southern Resident Killer Whale,” he said. “The Skagit tribes rely on a healthy, productive Skagit to sustain our fishing culture, and today we are faced with a complete fishery disaster.”

The Diablo Dam is one of three dams operated by Seattle City Light on the Skagit River. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2003.