Upper Skagit tribe urges fish passage at Seattle dams

A young salmon from the Skagit River near Gorge Dam in clear examination box.

As deadlines approach in the relicensing process for Seattle’s Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe awaits insight into whether its requests to consider restoring fish passage will be honored. 

Among the requests was for the utility to study the possibility of removing the Gorge Dam, the lowest of three dams along the river as it winds through Whatcom County. The tribe also requested that Seattle restore the river to its above-ground path where it has been forced underground for decades to increase electricity generation. 

The tribe expects the utility to rewater the the 2.5 miles of dry riverbed between the Gorge Dam and Powerhouse and to create fish passage as the minimum necessary mitigation for any future hydroelectric license.

Gorge Dam is framed by forested hills above a dry Skagit riverbed.
Seattle’s Gorge Dam blocks the Skagit River upstream of Newhalem.

Seattle City Light is preparing to apply for a 30- to 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to continue supplying electric power generated at the dams to the city more than 100 miles away. The current 50-year license expires in 2025. Seattle plans to submit a draft license application on Dec. 1, 2022, and a final application in April 2023. 

Construction of the Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams in the early 1900s cut migratory salmon and steelhead off from upwards of 40% of the Skagit River watershed, according to relicensing comments from multiple government agencies. In the years since, the river’s chinook salmon, steelhead and bull trout populations, as well as the Salish Sea orca population that eats the region’s salmon, have declined to the point that each has been listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).  

“The Skagit is not producing salmon at the level that it should be,” said Scott Schuyler, an Upper Skagit Indian Tribe elder and director of the tribe’s natural resources department. “We’re already at 100 years with no fish passage, and we have generations of Upper Skagit who haven’t been able to participate in some of these fisheries.” 

Schuyler’s children are among them. Despite the tribe’s treaty right to fish, Schuyler’s 30-year-old son has never had the chance to fish for a wild Skagit River chinook, and his 21-year-old daughter has never netted a Skagit River chum. 

“These fish are of immeasurable value culturally to the tribe,” Schuyler said, bleary-eyed from several early mornings fishing a coho run that, despite returning in stronger numbers than other Skagit River species, remains a fraction of the size it could be in a healthy watershed. 

The exposed gravel of the Skagit riverbed between Gorge dam and powerhouse extends beneath power lines and smoky skies and in early October 2022.
The dry stretch of Skagit riverbed between Gorge Dam and Powerhouse extends beneath power lines and smoky skies and in early October 2022.

The Upper Skagit Tribe is not alone in asserting that fish passage through or around Seattle’s dams could restore habitat for Skagit River salmon and steelhead and provide a much-needed boost for populations listed as threatened and endangered under the ESA. Staff from NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), along with various other government agencies, tribes and nonprofit organizations, echo the tribe’s insistence that Seattle study and implement fish passage measures if it wants a new license.

“In lieu of dam removal, that’s the next best option,” Schuyler said. “One hundred years later, we have an opportunity here to fix historical wrongs.” 

The lack of salmon and adequate fish habitat in the dry stretch of riverbed between the Gorge Dam and Powerhouse is particularly painful for the Upper Skagit Tribe. In the vicinity of the powerhouse, Upper Skagit ancestors gathered at a fishing village. Ceremonial practices were conducted in the waters upstream, in the area Seattle City Light calls a “bypass reach.”

“With our Indigenous knowledge of our homeland, we know this area supported fish and fish passage,” Schuyler said. 

On rare occasions when Seattle City Light releases water from the Gorge Dam into this stretch of riverbed, that Indigenous knowledge is increasingly verifiable. Upper Skagit and government agency staff have documented fish congregating and eggs incubating in boulder-ringed pools, signaling that fish are accessing habitat Seattle has long argued was naturally impassible because of the steep and rocky terrain. 

“We’ve observed salmon above what some referred to as a ‘fish barrier’ many times in the Gorge,” Upper Skagit fisheries scientist Brian Lanouette said. “If there’s fish in the river and enough flow in the bypass reach, fish go up there.” 

The exposed gravel of the Skagit riverbed between Gorge dam and powerhouse extends beneath smoky skies and in early October 2022.
The exposed gravel of the Skagit riverbed in the “bypass reach” extends beneath smoky skies.

According to a document filed as part of the dam relicensing process, Upper Skagit and Seattle City Light staff together observed 30 fish in the bypass reach following a release of water in May 2018. Those fish included coho salmon and steelhead—both ESA-listed species. 

WDFW observed coho and steelhead again in the spring of 2021, and in November 2021 tallied 256 coho, 196 pink, 4 sockeye and 2 chinook salmon. 

“We have an increasing body of evidence,” Upper Skagit habitat biologist Rick Hartson said. 

That evidence has been gathered during intermittent spring and fall surveys since 2016. With the data from those surveys and Seattle’s promise to take an “ecosystem approach” to the relicensing process, Upper Skagit is eager to see what role fish passage will play in the city’s hydroelectric license application. 

“It’s undeniable that fish passage is going to need to be a component of the license,” Lanouette said. “The things that we’re asking for are legitimately needed mitigation.” 

The addition of fish passage at hydropower dams and the removal of dams entirely is becoming increasingly common across the Pacific Northwest where salmon, and the ecosystems and people connected to them, have been struggling despite other protections and assurances such as ESA listings and tribal treaty rights. 

“There are many moral, legal and scientific reasons Seattle should be doing this,” Schuyler said. “And how satisfying would that be, to see fish coming into these reservoirs, spawning and reproducing? Not only for Upper Skagit, but also for the city of Seattle; for Seattle residents to know they’ve done something good for the largest watershed in Puget Sound.” 

The Skagit River watershed drains an estimated 1.7 million acres from mountains to sea in Washington and British Columbia. That’s an area about 32 times the size of the bustling city of Seattle, which is the largest in the state. 

Above: A young salmon observed in the “bypass reach” of the Skagit River between Seattle’s Gorge Dam and Powerhouse in April 2021. Photo: WDFW, Story and additional photos: Kimberly Cauvel