PUD’s plans for power facility at Sunset Falls draws fire

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Public Utility District is close to filing the first of two applications for federal approval to build a hydroelectric power plant at Sunset Falls on the South Fork Skykomish River near Index.

Opponents of the project crowded into Tuesday’s meeting of the PUD’s elected commissioners to voice concerns and objections, mostly with technical aspects of the proposal. They raised concerns about fish survivability rates, stream flow levels, and hillside stability in the adjacent area.

Ultimately, though, being for, or against, the Sunset Falls project is an emotional matter. The Skykomish River “is one of the most spectacular scenic spots in the United States,” said Jeff Smith, who lives on the river near the proposed project site.

“For most people, it’s not what the project is. It’s where the project is,” he told the three PUD commissioners.

The “endless debate” on technical matters “cannot quantify the reason why there is such opposition to this project,” he said.

The Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project has been controversial almost since the PUD began considering it in 2011.

Since then, nearby homeowners, ratepayers, environmentalists, American Indian tribes, state and federal regulators, and others have weighed in — or at least had opportunities to, said Mark Flury, the lead engineer of the PUD’s power generation division after the meeting.

The PUD picked the site after consulting with many of those groups, PUD officials said.

Last year, the district scaled back its proposal to get rid of an inflatable mini-dam called a weir that would have partially blocked the river’s flow. Instead, the plan now would route water from the river above Sunset Falls, run it through a big pipe and put it back into the river after the waterfall.

It is called a run-of-the-river project because it is not meant to stop or slow the river’s flow. Water would only be diverted when the river is high enough, according to PUD officials.

Stacks of studies and analyses have been completed. The PUD has used that material in its draft license application, which it plans to file with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) by mid-January. A public comment period will follow. Feedback on the draft will be used for the final license application.

If the PUD succeeds, actually getting a FERC license for the project is likely at least a few years away.

A tentative schedule has construction beginning at the end of 2019 and operations starting in 2023. The project is expected to cost $145 million in 2015 dollars. That includes 20 percent contingency costs.

The proposed facility would generate an average of 13.7 megawatts of energy, enough to power 13,200 houses.

The plant would generate the most electricity in the wet winter months and during spring rains.

The PUD also plans improvements to an ongoing program that traps fish returning to spawn in the river and trucks them above Sunset Falls. The river produces about 20 percent of the fish in the Snohomish River basin, Flury said.

Those upgrades would make that process less stressful on fish, according to the PUD.

But those benefits don’t outweigh what could be lost, Smith said.

He held up two photos of a serene mountain lake surrounded by snow-powdered evergreens and soaring, jagged peaks covered in ice and snow.

“That’s the view from my living room,” he said. “People come out there and start crying. It’s that spectacular.”

Smith said he does not oppose hydroelectric projects. But he fears that the Sunset Falls project will mar the landscape.

“We can produce energy in all different ways, but we can’t recreate places that took millions of years to make,” he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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