SULTAN — A helicopter whirred over a patch of woods near the Sultan River on Wednesday morning, dangling a 40-foot log that would soon be plopped expertly into a shallow channel of water to create fish habitat.
The bustle in the air and on the ground at Sultan’s Osprey Park was part of a $3 million project by the Snohomish County Public Utility District. The work fulfills one of several promises the PUD made last year as part of a new, long-term license to operate a dam and hydropower plant upstream.
“When you see the finished project, it’ll look very natural,” PUD fish biologist Keith Binkley said. “You’ll see lots of fish, you’ll smell the rotting carcasses, you’ll get the whole experience.”
The habitat project began this summer. It involves carving nearly two miles of side channels along the river, where logs brought by air and ground will slow down the flow of water. That, it’s hoped, will create an ideal place for fingerling salmon to grow to a healthy size before swimming out to the ocean.
There are four channels in all, plus eight log jams — each basically a giant, tangled ball of 50 to 60 tree trunks. New pedestrian bridges and trails are going in, as well.
The channel work passes through woods at Sultan’s Osprey and Reese parks. This fall, the utility plans to replant areas disturbed by the heavy construction work.
The fish habitat work stems directly from the PUD’s new 45-year license to operate its Culmback Dam and the Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project several miles upstream on the Sultan River.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted the new license in September 2011.
To reach that point, the PUD forged agreements over ways to minimize the dam and hydropower plant’s impact on the natural river environment. Stakeholders included the tribes, environmental groups and the city of Sultan. The end result obligated the PUD to spend $21.4 million on projects to restore fish habitat and whitewater recreation.
“What we’re trying to do here is mimic the conditions of a free-flowing river,” Binkley said.
The cost will be financed with bonds backed by power bills that PUD customers pay.
Other items on the project list already are done. They include raising water temperature in the river slightly by releasing water from Spada Lake reservoir. The utility also has opened the top of the Culmback Dam to hikers.
An access trail for whitewater rafters should be ready in late 2013 or 2014.
The dam was built in 1965 to expand Spada Lake and increase the supply of drinking water. About 80 percent of the drinking water for Snohomish County now comes from Spada Lake, via Lake Chaplain, to the city of Everett.
In 1984, the PUD added the Henry M. Jackson Hydroelectric Project, which includes tunnels and pipelines to divert water from the lake to a pumphouse downstream. There, turbines generate about 5 percent of the PUD’s power, enough for about 35,800 homes.
All of that has come at some expense to the environment, and the recreation it provided.
The low water flow caused by the dam and the pipeline made life tough for fish and took away what once was a prime whitewater rafting spot. Side channels to the river, like the ones now being carved through the woods, dried up. Accumulating debris and the occasional torrential flow of water have been other side effects.
The goal, Binkley said, is not just to increase the number of fish coming to spawn, but to encourage the healthier stocks by giving juvenile fish an optimal place to grow.
“What we’re trying to do is be good stewards of the environment, to do what’s best for fish,” Binkley said.
The Sultan River is home to steelhead and four different types of salmon: pink, coho, chinook and chum.
PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said the fish population has increased and a monitoring effort is under way to keep better track of the number of spawning fish.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, email@example.com.