SKAGIT RIVER — In a quiet bend of water, a dark mass was moving in the green depths.

Salmon.

Erin Lowery, biologist for Seattle City Light, cut the engine on a skiff and pointed to the pinks massing at the confluence of the Sauk River. Nearby, a sport fisherman bent a rod.

These fish and other salmon species, steelhead and bull trout are at the center of a federal relicensing process now underway for the utility’s three dams on the Skagit.

As Seattle City Light moves to extend its use of the dams for another 30 to 50 years, at stake is the cost and supply of cheap, carbon-neutral power from the dams — about 20% of the city supply; the fate of salmon and steelhead at risk of extinction; and treaty rights of tribes fishing the Skagit for thousands of years.

Today climate change is threatening salmon survival and changing river flows. Bull trout, steelhead and Puget Sound Chinook have been listed as threatened species since the last license for the dams was granted in 1995. Southern resident killer whales, which depend on Chinook for much of their diet, were listed as endangered in 2005.

Now tribes and other river users are pushing City Light to do more for salmon in this round of relicensing.

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“We are people of the salmon,” said Steve Edwards, Chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, which has treaty-reserved fishing rights in the Skagit. “Our priority is always to ensure that our way of life continues and strengthens, because the tribes’ spiritual and cultural heritage and traditions, they have already been adversely impacted by City Light’s dams.

“The river is our lifeline and our lifeblood.”

Ahead are years of studies and meetings to shape just what the operation and configuration of these dams could look like in the decades to come.

In a recent open letter to participants in the relicensing process, Debra Smith, general manager and CEO of Seattle City Light, said the utility is committed to taking a hard look at the environmental issues that come with running three dams on one of the region’s premier salmon rivers — including fish passage and dam removal.

City Light concedes that the science that led the city and parties to the current license agreement, including the tribes, to focus on flow management rather than fish passage, is 30 years old, and has been called into question. It is time now to update the science, Smith said.

The current license for the dams expires in 2025. Between now and 2023, studies will be underway to develop the application for a new license that will be filed two years before the expiration, as required by law. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission then will consider the application.

Three dams, no fish passage

The Skagit is one of Washington’s mightiest rivers, running 150 miles from its headwaters in the Canadian Cascades to Puget Sound, near Mount Vernon, draining 1.7 million acres of territory along its route. Snowmelt from the mountains of B.C. and Washington provide abundant cool water and the largest source of fresh water to Puget Sound from any Washington river.

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The river rambles through wild country: About 70% of the basin is on federal land, or is designated wilderness or national park. It is a river that is home to not only salmon but innumerable bird species, including trumpeter swans and snow geese and eagles that in the winter flock to feast on the river’s returning salmon.

Yet for nearly 100 years, fish passage has never been required at any of the Skagit River dams.

City Light had long maintained that large boulders and falls were a natural blockage to migration above Gorge Dam, the lowest of the three.

In 2019, Seattle City Light began work with nearly 40 license participants — tribes, federal and state agencies, local governments, and nonprofits — to develop an application for a new license.

The city’s study plan, submitted in April, was recently approved by FERC, the licensing agency.

Studies will soon get underway. The work program is the result of a reset in the relicensing process last March, after City Light got the message particularly from tribes that it was not listening.

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“On a personal level it was horrifying to be painted as someone who does not care about fish, because I absolutely do,” Smith said in an interview.

As part of the reset, City Light doubled the budget for studies to about $20 million, and also sought and received approval from the City Council for a new fund for habitat projects and studies for species at risk of extinction in the Skagit watershed.

As part of the work ahead, the utility agreed to examine fish passage at the dams. In addition, City Light has agreed to assess decommissioning and removal of the dams — and to repeat the assessment during the life of the new license, to respond to changing environmental conditions, technology and customer demand.

Meanwhile, the Upper Skagit Tribe has launched an online petition demanding removal of the Gorge Dam, signed by nearly 50,000 people.

FERC makes the final decision as to operation and configuration at the dams, including dam removal.

Making electricity for nearly a century

City Light’s hydroelectric dams on the Skagit were built one after another to meet the needs of a growing city, beginning with Gorge Dam, the lowest in the system, finished in 1924; then Diablo, the middle dam, finished in 1930 and energized in 1936, then Ross Dam, completed in phases ending in 1949. The dams have a total of 690 megawatts of generating capacity, along with providing flood control and recreation.

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The dams are in a very sensitive location: They operate within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area managed by the National Park Service, and the river downstream of the dams is classified as wild and scenic, home to Chinook, pink, chum coho, and sockeye salmon as well as steelhead trout. 

Ross Lake is the biggest of the reservoirs, acting as the battery for the system, and storing flows from winter snowmelt to provide water downstream that is managed at Diablo and Gorge Dams for salmon reproduction.

The utility has since its last license regulated flows to protect salmon, prioritizing fish even over power generation, said Chris Townsend, natural resources and hydro licensing director for the utility.

In practical terms, that means maintaining river levels to sustain nests or redds laid by salmon on the banks to keep them wet.

The Upper Skagit population of Chinook is the healthiest in Puget Sound, Lowery noted. Today, 42% of the wild Chinook that migrate into Puget Sound spawn in the waters below Gorge Dam.

In addition to managing flows for fish, the utility also over the past 25 years has purchased property to protect fish and wildlife, and worked with partners to conserve and restore river and off-channel habitat, including 3,600 acres along the Skagit, Sauk and Stillaguamish Rivers and 10,450 acres of uplands, wetlands and riparian habitat.

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This new license can be an opportunity to do more research, more habitat protection, and build on the successes of the flow management program, Townsend said. For despite investments made regionwide since the 1999 listing of Chinook under the Endangered Species Act, the population across the region is not recovering.

“That tells us two things,” Lowery said. “The actions are too small, and should be bigger.”

For instance, Lowery said, salmon rearing habitat in the estuary remains limited in an important agricultural area long converted with dikes and tide gates, fill and levees to produce farmland where there had been wetlands, sloughs, tidal marshes and natural flood plains.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, restoring estuarine habitat is the single most important action for salmon recovery in the Skagit, where in the delta — which spans from Camano Island north to Padilla Bay — 73% of historic tidal wetlands and channels have been lost, and 88% of the estuarine habitats specifically used by juvenile Chinook also have been converted.

Salmon people

The Upper Skagit people have occupied the upper Skagit region for thousands of years, since long before the dams, notes Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the tribe on natural and cultural resources and lead negotiator for the tribe for fish and wildlife and hydropower relicensing.

Over a century ago when representatives for Seattle arrived seeking to use the river for hydropower, the tribe was never consulted. The Upper Skagit village located at present-day Newhalem was desecrated and the resting places of ancestors were disturbed, Schuyler said. Sites culturally significant to the Upper Skagit were destroyed, damaged or inundated.

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Tribes’ federally protected treaty fishing rights also have been diminished as salmon decline.

Edwards, the chairman at Swinomish, now 60, started fishing the Skagit when he was about 10. It used to be nothing to catch 40 or 50 Chinook in a day, Edwards said. Today, if fishers get 12 or 14, that is a good day. Some days, even five looks good.

“It’s great to them,” Edwards said of young fishers, “because they have not had the experiences I have had.”

He is glad to see his adult daughter’s amazement at the sight of orcas in Skagit Bay. But he is saddened that seeing an orca is now an experience so rare, her sighting at about age 35 was her first.

It used to be the fishers knew when the salmon were running thick because they would see the orcas first, Edwards said. “I remember the elders talking, about the black fish are in the bay, the Chinook are in the bay. They should be hitting the river.

“These are the things our kids won’t get to experience. These are the things that, without the salmon, what are we missing? There is a lot more than just the salmon that we are missing,” Edwards said.

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The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe is one of the smallest and poorest in Puget Sound. But they too have been aggressive in the relicensing process, even filing a suit requiring City Light to desist in calling itself a green utility, since it provides no fish passage at its dams.

“The ultimate goal here now is in whatever way possible to build these fish runs back up,” said Sauk-Suiattle Chairperson Nino Maltos II. “That’s not only for us, that is for everybody.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the headwaters of the Skagit River.