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.

Snohomish County utility awaits approval for tidal turbine

 

In this June 13, 2011 file photo, the Energy Tide 2, the largest tidal energy turbine ever deployed in the U.S., appears on a barge in Portland, Maine. Scientists at the University of Washington have determined that Admiralty Inlet, in Puget Sound, is an excellent place to test tidal turbines. (AP Photo/File)

In this June 13, 2011 file photo, the Energy Tide 2, the largest tidal energy turbine ever deployed in the U.S., appears on a barge in Portland, Maine. Scientists at the University of Washington have determined that Admiralty Inlet, in Puget Sound, is an excellent place to test tidal turbines. (AP Photo/File)

BY Tim Haeck  on January 15, 2014 MyNorthwest.com

 

A public electric utility in Everett could be among the first in the nation to generate power from the tides.

Scientists at the University of Washington have determined that Admiralty Inlet, in Puget Sound, is an excellent place to test tidal turbines.

“Admiralty Inlet stacks up pretty well, worldwide, in terms of its actual tidal energy resource,” said Craig Collar, assistant general manager at Snohomish County Public Utility District No. 1. Currents have been clocked at 6-7 knots, he said.

The PUD is pledged to maintain carbon-free power sources. It has wind power and is exploring geo-thermal energy, as well.

“We’re highly dependent on the Bonneville Power Administration,” said Collar. “That’s a lot of eggs in one basket and it only makes sense to diversify.”

The advantage of tidal power: tides are reliable and predictable.

The disadvantage is you have to pick the right spot.

The utility wants to place two turbines, each about 20-feet in diameter, on the bottom of Admiralty Inlet, 200 feet below the surface. The more than $20 million pilot project, funded in half by the U.S. Energy Department, is at least six years in development. It’s been delayed, in part, by a challenge from a California company that owns two trans-ocean fiber optic telecommunications cables.

“The turbines, as currently proposed, are dangerously close to our cable,” said Kurt Johnson, chief financial officer of Pacific Crossing. He’s worried that turbine deployment and maintenance could damage the cables.

“Pacific Crossing is not against tidal energy, or even this specific project. All we’re really asking is that the PUD locate the turbines a safe distance from our cable.”

“In fact, we have done that,” said Collar. “This project is now several hundred feet away from their cable, so the crux of the matter is our project simply doesn’t represent any risk whatsoever to their cable.”

Collar said an environmental review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), draws the same conclusion.

“The facts are they’ve got a six-inch wide lease, we’re several hundred feet away, we have a deployment accuracy of less than ten feet, we won’t use any anchors at all in the deployment operation or maintenance of these devices,” said Collar.

Tribal and environmental groups have also challenged the project out of concern for fish and orcas.

“But the truth is these turbines rotate quite slowly, more the speed that we’d visualize for a turnstile, taking several seconds just to make a single revolution,” Collar explained.

The utility is awaiting approval of a license from FERC and some state and local permits. The soonest the turbines could be deployed would be 2015.

It’s not known if tidal power will prove effective around here.

The Snohomish County PUD No.1 will hook up the turbines to the power grid but Collar said this pilot project is more about collecting data than generating electricity. If approved, the turbines will operate for three-to-five years and be removed.