A fight over the lack of fish passage at Seattle City Light dams escalated Tuesday when Skagit County sued the city of Seattle in a bid to force the release of some of the utility’s financial records.
The county named Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Light General Manager Debra Smith in its suit, seeking to compel the release of records under the state Public Records Act. The records include an accounting of the value of power sold from each of the three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit.
“We just want the city to listen, to work with us and the tribes, and roll up their sleeves and work on fish passage,” said Peter Browning, one of three Skagit County commissioners. “They say they can’t afford it. Well, let us see the financials. It seems like a very easy thing, especially for an organization that big. It seems like it should just be a few button pushes.”
The lack of fish passage has also for decades frustrated tribes with treaty fishing rights on the river.
Julie Moore, spokesperson for Seattle City Light, said the utility does not comment on litigation but is looking hard at the question of fish passage as part of an ongoing process to re-license the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The federal license expires in April 2025.
The city operates three dams — Gorge, Diablo and Ross — on the Skagit. The dams generate about 20% of the power used by City Light customers. The dams were built beginning in 1917 without fish passage, and block passage by salmon and steelhead from reaching the upper third of the watershed.
The dams also harm the habitat downstream, by stopping the flow of sediment and wood that helps build a healthy, complex river channel salmon use for spawning.
Nino Maltos, chair of tribal council for the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, said the city has not taken seriously its responsibility for improving fish runs as part of its re-licensing process.
The new license, replacing the one issued in 1995, will be good for as long as 50 years. The river is home to all five species of salmon — several of which are at risk of extinction, including Puget Sound Chinook.
“This is one of the most irritating things to us,” Maltos said. “They are making it seem like there is a question about whether there is any impact, when there is no doubt. We think it is kind of funny, they have hired one of the biggest law firms in the state to fight one of the smallest tribes, instead of working with us to do what it takes to solve this.”
The tribe, which has about 330 members, wants the city to analyze the viability and cost of putting fish passage at its three dams on the Skagit, or, failing that, taking out the Gorge Dam, the lowest in the river.
“This isn’t just for us, it is for everyone that utilizes this river, and the animals that use it,” Maltos said. “The first thing we want to see is passage, ASAP. It should have been there in the first place and if they fail to deliver on that, we would like to see the Gorge Dam completely taken out.”
Moore said City Light is using the re-licensing process to take a “wholistic look” at the river.
“City Light sees the FERC re-licensing process as a tremendous opportunity to look at the whole ecosystem of the Skagit River watershed, and we are taking an ecosystem approach to the re-licensing,” Moore said in an email.
She said City Light has been working since 2018 with 40 license participants, including tribes, federal and state agencies, local governments and nonprofits. “We have made a lot of progress improving our relationships with the agencies and the tribes. It is a work in progress and we remain committed to ongoing collaboration.”
She said City Light has 33 separate studies underway on such topics as fish passage, cultural resources, water quality and recreation.
“City Light is currently comprehensively evaluating the feasibility of providing upstream and downstream fish passage,” Moore wrote. “We are also studying the suitability of fish habitat in Ross Lake.”
The Upper Skagit Tribe is also seeking passage at the three dams, or removal of the Gorge Dam, to boost salmon production. Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the tribe for natural and cultural resources, said the tribe has found working with the city to be frustrating.
“There have been a lot of cultural impacts that have been directed on us by the Gorge Dam, this is a very sacred area for us with a lot of sacred sites,” he said. “I think they walked into this process thinking their PR would rule the day. … But the Upper Skagit sat up and said, ‘Fish passage is an issue.'”
Lately he said relations had improved but the city’s commitments are still lacking.
Will Honea, deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County, said the county was surprised to have to file a lawsuit to get a breakdown on revenue from wholesale power sales.
In its complaint against the city, the county stated the city did not reference an exemption under which the records were denied. But the city did not provide the information requested either, “instead obfuscating and delaying the release of information by bad faith tactics such as mischaracterizing the County’s records requests, denying the existence of responsive documenters, denying the receipt of communications that Seattle’s representatives clearly received, and the like.”
After months of letters, emails, and exasperation, the county ran out of patience, Honea said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Honea said. “So I said, ‘OK, they are not going to provide this information.’ So we sued.”