INDEX — When the Snohomish County Public Utility District built its Youngs Creek mini-dam four years ago, it did not face much opposition.
The 12-foot dam is on a small stream high in the Cascade foothills, south of the Skykomish River near Sultan. It’s a remote location above salmon spawning.
The PUD’s possible power-generating mini-dam on the South Fork Skykomish River at Sunset Falls, however, is another story.
More than 100 people packed a hearing last June at a firehouse in Index, nearly all of them opposed to the proposed $133 million project.
National environmental groups have weighed in, including a local branch of a national river advocacy group that had taken a neutral stance on Youngs Creek.
The Tulalip Tribes, which supported Youngs Creek, have lent conditional backing to the Sunset Falls project but are challenging the PUD’s study plans for determining the effect on fish.
Two of the three state legislators representing the district in which the power project would be located have come out against it. The other has questions.
Officials at the PUD say Snohomish County needs home-grown power for the future. Choices are few, they say, and small hydro projects provide low-cost power in the long term with minimal, if any, impact on the environment.
“This is an area that’s continuing to grow and likely to grow significantly more in the future,” PUD general manager Steve Klein said, citing more Boeing jobs possibly coming to the county.
Opponents say the mini-dam could cause flooding, could keep salmon fry from getting downriver, could affect scenic views and won’t create enough power to justify the cost.
“I don’t support it because I think it will do more harm to the environment than the projected benefits are worth,” said state Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe.
The PUD is unmoved by the pushback.
In an attempt to diversify electricity sources, the PUD also is planning a $20 million tidal turbine pilot project in Admiralty Inlet. Among other opposition, that project is being fought by the Tulalips over the potential effect on fish.
Opposition goes with the territory, Klein said.
“We don’t have any project that doesn’t have opposition,” he said.
So far, few supporters of the mini-dam project have spoken up. People who are in favor of projects tend not to be as vocal as opponents, PUD officials said.
One backer of the Sunset Falls project is Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick.
“My feeling is that I believe the PUD is very reputable, we’ve had nothing but good experiences working with PUD,” she said. “I don’t see that it is invasive to the world.”
An old idea revived
The mini-dam would actually be a seven-foot inflatable weir above Sunset Falls that would divert some water into a 2,200-foot tunnel. A 30-megawatt generator would be at the other end of the tunnel, just below the falls. It’s expected to create enough power for more than 10,000 homes.
The weir would be inflated about nine months a year, when flow is highest, PUD officials say. It would be deflated during low flow in the summer.
A long study period lies ahead. The PUD last year submitted a study plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will make a final decision that might not come for five years or more, FERC officials have said.
The PUD expects to spend about $1 million on the studies, spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. Those studies, PUD officials stress, will decide the fate of the project.
Opponents note that a similar plan for the same location was studied more than 20 years ago.
Tacoma Public Utilities, when Klein was the power manager there, applied to build a small dam near Sunset Falls. The plan was rejected by the federal government.
Klein said he was not involved in the previous project. His signature is on the preliminary permit application from 1991, but he said it was only to fill in for the deputy director, who was out of the office.
Otherwise, “I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Klein said. “I’m not on a Steve Klein crusade to build a dam at Sunset.”
In 1992, the federal energy agency followed a recommendation by the National Marine Fisheries Service to reject the project.
“The proposed Sunset Falls project would have unacceptable adverse impacts on the fish and wildlife resources of the South Fork Skykomish River and full mitigation of resource losses is most likely unattainable,” according to a letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior to FERC in 1992.
Unlike the current plan, the former project called for a 15-foot stationary concrete dam and a tunnel of 9,000 feet — more than four times longer than the tunnel in the new plan.
“Night-and-day difference,” said Kim Moore, an assistant general manager for the PUD.
Opponents say it’s not different enough.
The earlier project was rejected not for its design but because of the location, said opponent Andrea Matzke, whose family has had a cabin on the river for decades.
“If the location does not have enough water to supply hydro and let the fish pass downstream safely, then it doesn’t,” she said.
Crucial fish habitat
Salmon historically did not spawn above Sunset Falls. Due to loss of habitat downstream, however, the state in 1958 built a structure just below the falls where fish are trapped, loaded into trucks and hauled upstream to more pristine stretches of the river.
The habitat there is the best in the entire Snoqualmie-Skykomish-Snohomish river system, said Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes.
Chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon spawn and head downstream through the falls.
“Some years we get as much as half of our chinook (salmon) production for the entire basin from above Sunset Falls,” Williams said.
The Tulalip Tribes gave the PUD a list of five conditions under which they would support the project. They include ensuring stream flow, effective screening of fish from intakes and establishing a reliable fish-counting system.
These points were “largely ignored” by the PUD in its latest study plan, Williams wrote in comments to FERC on Jan. 14.
“The tribes have little confidence that the proposed study plans will provide adequate information to assess what the likely impacts of the project might be to out-migrating fish, especially the small fry and fingerlings,” Williams wrote.
The Tulalips want a study period spanning at least two years to address fluctuations in water flow and differing migration seasons among salmon species, Williams said later.
The PUD is discussing the matter with the Tulalips, Neroutsos said.
“We are confident that the study plan will meet their environmental concerns,” he said.
Moore said the PUD is aware of the importance of fish to the project.
“Fish come first, fish come second, fish come third,” he said.
That’s one reason why the PUD has agreed to pay for rebuilding the aging trap-and-haul structure as part of the project. It’s one of the conditions set by the Tulalips in exchange for their support.
Otherwise, state Fish and Wildlife officials have said, the department doesn’t have the estimated $1.5 million needed to pay for a new structure.
Costs and benefits
The stated costs and benefits of the Sunset Falls project, and the PUD’s small dams in general, have been challenged by opponents.
In the year ending Sept. 30, 2012, power from the Youngs Creek dam cost three times as much as that for the system overall, according to a PUD document. The $29 million Youngs Creek project will be paid off in 2040, according to the PUD.
The electricity generated by the 30-year-old Jackson Hydroelectric Project on the Sultan River still costs slightly more than the system average, according to another document. That project is expected to be paid off in 2019.
The system also includes Culmback Dam, built on Spada Lake in the 1960s to create a reservoir for drinking water, and a tunnel and powerhouse downriver built in 1983.
Officials say they don’t have a date for when Sunset Falls would be paid off.
“Whenever you get into a hydro project or a dam, you’re doing it for the long haul, not for the short term,” said Glenn McPherson, the PUD’s assistant general manager for finance. He likened the hydropower bonds to a mortgage on a house.
“So those principal and interest payments for the first 20 to 30 years are going to be high and create the situation where the power coming from that dam is going to be expensive,” McPherson said. “Once you pay it off, it’s cheap.”
The PUD buys about 80 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that owns and operates the large dams built decades ago on the Columbia River.
The Snohomish County PUD is the Oregon-based agency’s largest customer. The low-cost power from those dams keeps overall rates down in the utility district.
Some have said the PUD would do better buying more power from the BPA, but it’s not available, according to Klein. The power is spoken for, and no more large dams are being built.
The utility also has applied to FERC for small hydropower projects on Hancock and Calligan creeks above Snoqualmie Falls in King County, and could consider more, Neroutsos said. All the planning for future hydro has some wondering whether the PUD is stuck on dams.
“They don’t think outside the box, in my personal opinion,” said former Monroe mayor Donnetta Walser, a Sunset Falls project opponent.
State Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, and Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, say they favor hydropower but have doubts about this particular project.
Pearson has come out against it.
“I think there are much better locations,” he said.
Kristiansen is more measured in his opposition but questions the design.
He said in a visit to Norway several years ago, he saw micro-dams operating on fjords to generate power. These were less obtrusive, he said.
Tom O’Keefe, Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, a national river advocacy group, said the group sees hydropower as an important source of energy. They stayed neutral on Youngs Creek because of its minimal impact, O’Keefe said.
They don’t believe Sunset Falls qualifies on that front.
“We have pretty serious concerns with a project that is taking one of our mainstem rivers that is undammed and putting it through a penstock and powerhouse,” O’Keefe said.
Opponents also have said that if the PUD were to take the $133 million for the mini-dam and put it into rooftop solar power, it could generate as much electricity or more with no effect on the environment.
Klein and others at the PUD say that sounds good, but it doesn’t pencil out for a host of reasons. They note that they also are buying more wind power and have done test drilling in the Cascades for geothermal power. Though the latter endeavor didn’t pan out, those potential alternative sources are some of the projects for which they’ve been criticized, he said.
Wind power makes up 7 percent of the PUD’s power mix, while other alternative sources such as solar and biogas are now at 4 percent.
The utility has a $78 million fund from the sale of a share in a Centralia coal plant that it’s using to fund research on new sources of power, including mini-dams, PUD Commission president Dave Aldrich said.
Regarding the Sunset Falls project, “I’m aware of the arguments against it,” Aldrich said. “I haven’t seen anything so far that’s a fatal flaw. I’m most concerned about costs. If we didn’t spend the money here, where else could we spend it, where could we get the most bang for the buck? That’s always been the question.”
Work in progress
The South Fork Skykomish River is part of the state’s Scenic Rivers System. Under this designation, development is discouraged but not prohibited.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a regional planning group based in Portland, lists that part of the Skykomish as an area that should remain free of dams.
That designation in itself does not prevent development, but the FERC must take it into account in its decision.
The PUD has asked the council to add a provision to its planning document that would “allow new hydropower in a protected area when beneficial and appropriate,” when it can be shown that it’s helpful to fish and wildlife. The provision was in the council’s original documents and was taken out several years ago, spokesman John Harrison said.
Klein and other PUD officials stress that no final Sunset Falls plan has been submitted or a decision made.
“I ask people to hold judgment,” Klein said, “until they see the final proposal.”
Jerry Cornfield contributed from Olympia.