Sunset Falls east of Index. (Mark Mulligan / Herald file)

Sunset Falls east of Index. (Mark Mulligan / Herald file)

Snohomish County PUD scraps Skykomish River hydroelectric dam

The proposed Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project had been controversial since 2011.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County PUD has abandoned efforts to harness power from Sunset Falls.

The three-member PUD commission made that decision Tuesday.

“Based on its long-term energy planning and needs, the PUD has determined a continued emphasis on conservation,” PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. “PUD staff was directed by its board of commissioners on Tuesday to not pursue a final federal license for the Sunset Falls hydropower project on the South Fork Skykomish River at this time.”

The PUD was proposing to build a hydroelectric power plant at Sunset Falls near Index. It is the third of the three waterfalls on the South Fork Skykomish River. The falls drop 104 feet.

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

It ran into opposition from homeowners, ratepayers, environmentalists, tribes and others. For instance, in a letter to the editor earlier this week, Lynne Kelly, of Gold Bar, described the proposal as a “fish death-trap and money-sucking project.”

In September 2018, the Tulalip Tribes pulled out of settlement negotiations for the project. Among other things, it expressed concerns about potential effects on fish and wildlife.

“Due to the many concerns that the Tribe has with this project, it is time for the tribe to withdraw,” Tulalip tribal Chairwoman Marie Zackuse wrote at the time.

The PUD had been pursuing a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Over the years, the utility scaled back its proposal to get rid of an inflatable mini-dam called a weir that would have partially blocked the river’s flow. A revised plan called for routing water from the river above Sunset Falls, running it through a big pipe and putting it back into the river below the waterfall.

It was called a run-of-the-river project because it was not meant to stop or slow the river’s flow. Water would have been diverted only when the river was high enough to generate power without harming fish, according to PUD officials.

Stacks of studies and analyses were completed over the years, but the findings did not sway skeptics.

In 2015, the project was expected to cost $145 million and to generate enough energy for 13,200 houses.

For now, the PUD is emphasizing energy conservation.

“The PUD’s energy planning has forecasted that on an annual basis, over the next 10 years, due to expected energy conservation, the PUD will not need the additional energy that the Sunset Hydropower Project would provide,” Neroutsos said.

The PUD commission is expected to adopt its long-term energy plan in May.

“If higher growth occurs over the longer term, 10 years or beyond, the PUD could seek out additional energy resources in the mid-2020s time period,” PUD Commission President Kathy Vaughn said.

The stretch of river near Sunset Falls has been a popular and dangerous summer spot for recreation. Over the years, several people have died near there, including two last summer.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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