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.

Tribes, cable groups protest plan for tidal-power project

The tribes are concerned the turbines will interfere with fishing; cable interests say lines in the area could be damaged.

By Bill Sheets, Herald Writer

EVERETT — While a federal study recently gave an environmental OK to the Snohomish County Public Utility District’s plan to try out two tidal power turbines, some don’t agree with the conclusion.

Three Indian tribes, a cable company and a cable trade group all sent letters last week to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission opposing the Admiralty Inlet project as it’s proposed.

The tribes, including the Tulalips, say the turbines could interfere with fishing. The cable interests believe the project could damage trans-Pacific cables that run through the inlet.

The letters were sent to meet Thursday’s deadline for commenting on the federal environmental study.

The tribes and others expressed concern earlier in the process as well, but the 215-page draft report concluded that the turbines pose no threat to the cables, wildlife habitat or fishing.

Officials with the PUD have seen the latest responses, said Jeff Kallstrom, an attorney for the utility.

“We’re still looking them over in detail. I don’t think anything that’s said is something that hasn’t been said before,” he said.

A final environmental study could be written this spring or the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could simply reference the comments in either issuing or denying a license for the $20 million project, Kallstrom said. Either way, he expects a decision this summer, he said.

The first draft of the study concluded the turbines would not interfere with tribal fishing in part because “the size of the project would be very small relative to the fishing area. There is no current use of the project site as a commercial salmon fishery.”

The Tulalip Tribes, the Suquamish Tribe and the Point No Point Treaty Council, representing the Port Gamble and Jamestown S’Klallam tribes, each sent letters disputing the report’s conclusions.

“Development of this project would force the state and tribe to close this area for all types of fishing due to the safety hazards of fishing gear or anchor lines getting caught in the turbines,” wrote Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes, in a 35-page letter to the federal agency.

In the PUD’s project, the turbines would be placed in a flat area 200 feet underwater. Each circular turbine resembles a giant fan, sitting about 65 feet high on a triangular platform with dimensions of about 100 feet by 85 feet. The turbines are made by OpenHydro of Ireland.

The turbines would be placed about 575 and 770 feet from fiber-optic cables owned by Pacific Crossing of Danville, Calif. The cables extend a total of more than 13,000 miles in a loop from Harbour Pointe in Mukilteo to Ajigaura and Shima, Japan, and Grover Beach, Calif.

The company and the North American Submarine Cable Association, based in Morristown, N.J., both wrote to dispute the study’s findings.

The proposed distances from the turbines to the cables “significantly depart from industry standards,” said Robert Wargo, president of the cable association, in his letter to the federal agency.

Kurt Johnson, chief financial officer for Pacific Crossing, has said the company is concerned that the cables could be damaged by the placement of the 350-ton turbines or by anchors from boats in the area, he said.

Officials with the PUD earlier submitted to the federal agency a list of precautions that crews would take when operating near the turbines. The most important of these is that boats would stay running when in the area to eliminate the need for dropping an anchor, according to Craig Collar, senior manager for energy resource development for the PUD.

For placing the turbines, OpenHydro officials have told those at the PUD they can get them within 10 feet of their target locations, Collar said.

At peak output, the turbines are expected to generate 600 kilowatts between them, enough to power 450 homes, PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. Most of the time the output will be less, officials said. They emphasized that this would be only a demonstration project intended to determine whether more turbines could be effective in the future.

The project is expected to cost $20 million to $25 million. The PUD has received nearly half that amount in a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.