Planning group taking comments on proposed Skykomish dam

INDEX — Opponents of a possible dam on the south fork of the Skykomish River are closely watching an approaching deadline for comment on wild river designations.

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.

The organization is taking comments on renewal of its fish-and-wildlife plan, which includes the river designation, through Tuesday.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District is studying building a mini-dam on the river above Sunset Falls. The project has met with stiff opposition from environmental organizations and some people who live near the site.

The power to approve any dam rests with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but in making its decision, the federal agency is required to give weight to the council’s fish-and-wildlife plan, said John Harrison, spokesman for the council.

The council was created by Congress in 1980 to issue advisory plans that balance the needs of hydropower with environmental concerns.

The dam, if built, is expected to cost between $110 million and $170 million and supply power to an average of 10,000 homes. It would be an inflatable weir that could be raised and lowered depending on water flow, according to the PUD.

The utility buys about 90 percent of its power in the form of hydroelectric energy from the Bonneville Power Administration and is looking to diversify.

The PUD has submitted a preliminary report on the project to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission but has not formally applied to build the dam.

The PUD doesn’t plan to ask that the river be taken off the council’s protected list, spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

However, the utility is planning to suggest that a way in which dams could be approved on protected rivers be added back into the council’s rules, Neroutsos said.

When the council was first formed in the late 1980s, dams could potentially be approved on rivers listed as protected.

“They would have to show that the proposed project would have exceptional benefits for fish and wildlife — it would have to protect and enhance fish and wildlife in some way,” Harrison said.

For some reason — “I’m not sure why,” he said — this provision was removed in 2000.

The PUD is offering to rebuild a 55-year-old structure that is used to trap fish so they can be hauled by truck above Sunset Falls to spawn. That cost has been estimated at $1.5 million.

Neroutsos said the PUD has no plans to use the rule to seek an exception to the wild river designation in the future, but “we want to look at the process they have in place for seeking exceptions,” he said.

Andrea Matzke, who lives part-time in the Sunset Falls area and has been actively opposing the dam, said that makes her suspicious.

“My question is why would they want an exemption process if they didn’t want to go through with the dam on a protected river?” she said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

For more information or to submit comments on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s fish and wildlife plan, visit http://tinyurl.com/mfnllqo.

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