By Bill Sheets Herald Writer
INDEX — If anybody is in favor of a mini-dam proposed on the Skykomish River, they were hard to find this week.
Vocal public opinion, however, is not the sole deciding factor in the project moving forward.
A spillover crowd of more than 100 people jammed into the Index Fire House on Wednesday evening to register their opposition and hear more information about the Snohomish County PUD’s plan.
Some said small dams may be appropriate in some locations, but not near Sunset Falls.
“I simply think this is the wrong place,” former Index Mayor Kem Hunter said.
Earlier, dozens of people — many holding signs — lined rural gravel roads to get the attention of officials from the PUD and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who were touring the area where the project would be built.
While public opinion will be considered, a FERC official said a host of environmental factors and other elements of the plan will have to be studied over the next five years before any final decision is made.
The agency has federal jurisdiction over hydroelectric power projects.
“Everything the public says should go on the record, so we can address their concerns,” said John Baummer, a fish biologist with the federal agency. “Public opinion is important to us.”
He wouldn’t say how it weighs with other factors. The agency is taking written comments through July 19 for this stage of the project. Other comment periods likely will follow as more studies are done.
Baummer was one of four officials who flew out from Washington, D.C., to collect information. He wouldn’t give away his impressions of the project.
The PUD’s tour covered all aspects of the endeavor, projected by the utility to cost between $110 million and $170 million and supply power to an average of 10,000 homes.
The PUD buys about 90 percent of its power in the form of hydroelectric energy from the Bonneville Power Administration and is looking to diversify.
The plan involves diverting water from the pooled area behind the 7-foot weir, above Sunset Falls on the south fork of the Skykomish, through a 2,200-foot pipeline downstream to a powerhouse below the falls.
The weir would be inflated for about nine months out of the year, when the flow is highest, said Kim Moore, an assistant general manager for the PUD, who led the tour on Wednesday. It would be deflated during low-flow periods in the summer.
The PUD recently received a preliminary permit from FERC to continue to study the project. More studies will be done before the PUD applies to actually build the hydroelectric project, and no decision is likely for at least five years, Baummer said.
Concerns about the project include flooding above the dam and reduced water flow below it, including possible effect on fish; glare from lights; noise and traffic during construction, and effect on scenery.
According to the PUD’s work so far, the dam won’t cause flooding or dewatering on the river, and will be visually unobtrusive. Detailed fish studies remain to be done.
The area boasts dramatic views of Mount Index and other jagged, snowcapped peaks in the Cascade Mountains.
The caravan of officials on Wednesday stopped at the home of Jeff Smith, who lives just downstream from where the weir would be located.
“We’re very protective of this place because of the natural scenic value it has,” Smith told the group. “We think the most renewable form of energy is the human spirit.”
Earlier, the group stopped at Sunset Falls, where they were greeted by more than 60 protesters. Among the signs were “The River Cannot Speak for Itself,” “No Dam Has Ever Saved Wild Salmon,” “River For Sale,” and “Dams Are Not Green.”
Jim Broz of Redmond belongs to the Overlake Fly Fishing Club and came to show his opposition.
“I want to see them build (the dam) and then tear it down like the Elwha,” he said.
Later, the group planned to visit the possible site of the powerhouse, but an activist blocked the road with her SUV to divert the officials to a neighborhood where another 20 or so protesters were waiting.
They passed out cookies with icing spelling the word “DAM” and a circle and line drawn through it.
The tour later did stop at the powerhouse site just below the falls, next to a structure used to trap fish so they can be trucked upstream to prime spawning grounds.
That building is 55 years old and needs to be replaced, with the cost estimated at $1.5 million, said Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes. The state, which currently owns and operates the structure, has not committed to funding the replacement.
The PUD will pay for a new structure if the dam is approved, Moore said.
The Tulalip Tribes have lent their tentative support to the mini-dam, said Williams, who was on Wednesday’s tour. The tribes want to be sure that enough water will continue to flow over the dam and down the falls for juvenile fish migrating downstream, he said.
The PUD’s offer to pay for a new trap-and-haul building was a factor in the tribes’ support so far, Williams said.
“That caught our interest,” he said.
The river is home to several varieties of salmon and trout, and 20 percent of all the salmon in the Skykomish- Snoqualmie-Snohomish river system are spawned above the dam site by fish trucked upstream, Williams said.
Historically, fish did not go above the falls but the habitat downstream once was better than it is today, he said.
Some fish headed downstream will pass over the weir and others will be diverted into a bypass system to aid their movement down the river, according to the PUD.
The PUD chose the site out of more than 140 it studied because the river is in a relatively undeveloped area while lying outside designated wilderness territory. The project also takes advantage of a sharp bend in the river to shorten the pipeline.
That pristine character is precisely the reason not to build in that location, opponents say.
The south fork of the Skykomish is part of the state’s Scenic Rivers System. Under this designation, development is discouraged but not prohibited.
“This is our Walden Pond,” said Arthur Petersen, whose family has a cabin right where the dam would be built.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is taking written comments on the Snohomish County PUD’s possible mini-dam project on the Skykomish River at http://tinyurl.com/29qbavw. The deadline for comments for this study phase is July 19.
An outline of the process is available at http://tinyurl.com/lqdx9rw.
For more information about the project, go to http://www.snopud.com/?p=1956.