PUD proposes alternative to dam on Sky River

Mark Mulligan / The HeraldKim Moore (in black shirt), assistant general manager for water, generation and corporate services for the Snohomish County PUD, talks with John Baummer (in plaid), a fisheries biologist with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, at Sunset Falls last year.

Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Kim Moore (in black shirt), assistant general manager for water, generation and corporate services for the Snohomish County PUD, talks with John Baummer (in plaid), a fisheries biologist with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, at Sunset Falls last year.

 

By Bill Sheets, The Herald

INDEX — A controversial plan to build a mini-dam on a scenic stretch of the South Fork Skykomish River might become a little less controversial — at least from the point of view of the utility hoping to do the project.

Officials of the Snohomish County Public Utility District now say they can build the project near here without having a structure partially block and divert water — that enough water can be collected in a sharp bend in the river to be sent through a tunnel to a powerhouse downstream.

The previous plan called for pooling water behind a 7-foot, inflatable weir on the river above Sunset Falls before sending it through the 2,200-foot tunnel.

Removing the weir from the Sunset Falls project addresses aesthetic concerns, reduces construction time and cuts $10 million off the project, previously pegged at $133 million, according to the PUD.

“Visually, you really won’t see much,” spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. “Some times of the year, portions of the very top of the intake may be visible.”

One opponent says eliminating the weir wouldn’t help much.

“The bottom line is, if you’re going to produce hydropower in this river, you have to divert enough water form the river’s natural course and channel it to the turbines to make the hydropower. Any significant amount of hydropower you could create would affect salmon habitat,” said Andrea Matzke, who has a cabin near the proposed dam site.

The Tulalip Tribes have expressed concern that reducing water flow in the river could impede outward migration of juvenile salmon. That issue will be studied this spring, PUD officials say.

Nearby residents and environmental groups have opposed the project. They have also cited the fact that rock blasting will be necessary to build the tunnel, contending it could create dust, pollute the river and destabilize the terrain. Studies are expected to address these issues as well.

The new design also includes changes to the tunnel, Neroutsos said, making it narrower in places and reducing the amount of excavation necessary.

The utility has not formally applied with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build the project but has submitted preliminary plans. The PUD is to discuss the new plan with the federal agency over the next couple of weeks, Neroutsos said.

The PUD buys more than 80 percent of its power from the Bonneville Power Administration and is looking to diversify power sources. The project could power up to 22,500 homes at maximum output, according to the PUD. The utility also recently received the go-ahead from FERC for a $26 million pilot project to install tidal power turbines in Admiralty Inlet.

More studies, 17 in all, lie ahead on the Sunset Falls project, and any decision is likely five years away, FERC officials have said.

In May, the PUD is planning to survey ratepayers about the project through its website.

PUD Changes Course: No Dam for Skykomish River’s Sunset Falls

Skykomish RiverCourtesy Andrea Matzke

Skykomish River
Courtesy Andrea Matzke

By Bellamy Pailthorp

April 16, 2014 KPLU.org

 

Plans to put a dam on one of Washington’s most scenic rivers have been called off.

The Snohomish County Public Utilities District says it has a better plan for the area on the Skykomish River near Index. But opponents of the project say it’s still too early to declare a victory.

Snohomish County PUD was planning an inflatable weir for the bend in the river near Sunset Falls, not far from Index. The utility said it had a design that would rise and fall with the river, making it safe for endangered fish runs and minimally disruptive to the scenic value of the area.

But environmental groups and local property owners disagreed, and came out in force to raise their objections with federal regulators.

Now, the PUD says it has a better plan.

“We no longer need a dam, weir or in-river structure,” said assistant general manager Kim Moore.

A Switch To ‘Better Designs’

Moore says extensive studies of the area led the utility to see they could forego the dam, but still put turbines and a tunnel in at the bend in the river near Sunset Falls. And he says it would still produce enough power for about 10,000 homes on average, but would save $10 million and a whole season of construction.

“We’ve just come up with better designs that accomplish reduced cost, reduced impacts, reduced construction. We know the area much better now than we did a year ago,” Moore said.

Opponents Concerned About Preserving The Scenic Waterway

Opponents of the project say it’s risky to divert any water from a river that is home to endangered salmon. And the river is one of just a handful designated as state scenic waterways in Washington.

‘There have been only four rivers that have made that cut, and the Skykomish is one of them,” said Andrea Matzke, a local property owner and president of a new group, Wild Washington Rivers.

Matzke says she’ll keep fighting any hydro project at Sunset Falls, whether a dam is involved or not, because it’s an inappropriate place to put an industrial project. Among the mounting concerns is the potential for mudslides in the area.

“This is an unstable area. Why would they be risking people, even their workers, by bringing in heavy equipment and blasting?” Matzke said.

Early Days Yet

The PUD says it’s still one of the best potential areas they have for developing new sources of alternative energy.

And it’s early days yet. The new plan must be submitted to federal regulators, and getting it licensed would likely take at least three years.

Proposed hydro-energy project has Index saying ‘no dam way’

Snohomish County PUD wants to install a small, inflatable dam at this bend on the south fork of the Skykomish River.Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

Snohomish County PUD wants to install a small, inflatable dam at this bend on the south fork of the Skykomish River.
Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

June 19, 2013

By Bellamy Pailthorp

At a time when Washington state has been making headlines for the largest dam removal project ever on the Elwah River, Snohomish County is proposing a new one.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District says the proposed dam’s modern low-impact design would help the county diversify its energy portfolio and meet the future power demands of a growing population.

But the location of the proposed dam—on a wild and scenic stretch of the Skykomish River near the small town of Index—has many locals banding together against the project. 

Jeff Smith (center, in tan shirt) welcomed a public tour by FERC and the PUD at his property, which borders on the proposed dam site.Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

Jeff Smith (center, in tan shirt) welcomed a public tour by FERC and the PUD at his property, which borders on the proposed dam site.
Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

‘No dam way’

Driving east on Highway 2, evidence of the brewing controversy near Index is hard to miss. Printed signs and hand-painted placards line the roads, calling on the PUD not to dam the Skykomish.

“Did you see our address sign that says ‘no dam way?’” asks homeowner Jeff Smith with a laugh.

Smith is trying to maintain his sense of humor about it all. His riverfront property sits right on the edge of the proposed dam site.

For decades, Smith’s family has enjoyed communing with nature on the shore of the Skykomish as the river rushes by. To the west, the craggy peak of Mount Index looms, to south and east are peaks in the Wild Sky and Alpine Lakes Wilderness areas.

“A lot of people call this truly one of the most spectacular places in the country,” Smith said. “And of course, we believe it’s an inappropriate place to put an industrial project that puts a yoke on a wild and scenic river. And we think it should be allowed to stay free.”  

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

Meeting a growing demand

A powerhouse would be built to the left of Sunset falls, shown here. PUD says they would not be de-watered, just diminished as with hydro at Snoqualmie or Niagra Falls.

The Skykomish is one of only four rivers in Washington that has earned the wild and scenic designation, which is meant to discourage development.

But the Snohomish PUD has obtained the preliminary permit to put in an inflatable dam on the river. The idea is the dam would take advantage of the water’s power as it flows toward two sets of dramatic waterfalls.

The utility recently toured the site with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as part of its first scoping meeting. The commission will determine what kinds of environmental studies will be required for the licensing process.

Snohomish PUD Assistant General Manager Kim Moore pointed across the river, explaining to FERC and the public exactly how the inflatable structure made of steel and rubber would work.

“This is a big inner tube, which has compressed air that allows us to lower or raise it to keep the river at a steady height. Right now, with this kind of flow, probably it would be all deflated,” Moore told the tour.

Moore said the dam would lie flat about a third of the year, not producing power at those times. And there would always be some water flowing over the dam; it would adjust with the strength of the river to keep water levels safe for endangered fish and minimize its environmental impacts.

The dam would provide power for about 10,000 homes—or about 1 percent of the utility’s demand—at a cost of up to $170 million.

The utility says it’s the lowest cost “renewable energy” project it has found. The utility is also actively pursuing additional wind power and exploring geothermal, tidal and large-scale solar installations. Bottom line, says Moore: the utility wants to wean off of dirty fossil fuels.

“So this prevents a natural gas plant or coal plant, you know, because we’re still growing,” he said. “The county’s growing, we’re adding people and there’s a need for additional energy.”

‘Simply inappropriate’

Those arguments haven’t stopped the opposition.

More than a hundred people squeezed into the Index Fire House for the evening scoping meeting. And of the nearly three dozen people commenting, only one man spoke in favor of the dam. The man said the dam could reduce flooding and improve roads in the area.

But the rest of the commenters did not agree. Along with local residents, representatives of groups including the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters joined the chorus of dissenters. Also testifying was Tom O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director with American Whitewater.

“I have tremendous respect for my colleagues here at the PUD. I have worked with these folks for over a decade, ” O’Keefe said. “But sometimes your friends make mistakes. And this project is simply inappropriate in our view.”

FERC is taking comments on the plan for the proposed Skykomish River dam proposal through July 19. The final decision on the license is expected to take about five years.