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Friday, June 15, 2012

A Dam Proposal on the Skykomish River?

Map of the Proposed Dam Site,
from the Seattle Times
A recent Seattle Times article discussed a controversial proposal by Snohomish County Public Utility District (SnoPUD) to build a new dam along Highway 2, on the South Fork Skykomish River, near the scenic town of Index, Washington.

Proponents estimate the dam will generate enough power for 10,000 homes in the area and tout the green energy of hydropower. The controversy, however, lies in the impact that a dam would have on salmon and other fish, paddling and other recreation, and the free-flowing nature of one of the most beloved rivers in the Puget Sound. An additional concern is the intent to add hydropower requiring a new dam on a free-flowing river, rather than upgrading or adding hydropower capacity on existing structures.

Photo by Tom O'Keefe
The Skykomish River runs from Stevens Pass to the Puget Sound, and is known for its outstanding beauty, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunity. The Sunset Falls Hydroelectric Project, as it is known, would be placed on the South Fork Skykomish and consist of a piece of steel placed atop a inflatable 55-foot wide weir that could stand as tall as 8 feet when fully inflated. SnoPUD would also have to build a powerhouse on the north side of Sunset Falls. The dam would also be able to lie on top of the water during times of insignificant water flow.

The South Fork Skykomish is a well-decorated river. It has been designated as a State Scenic Waterway, listed as a Northwest Power and Conservation Council Protected Area, and recommended for federal designation as a Wild and Scenic River by the U.S. Forest Service. According to opponents, the dam proposal would reduce two of the rivers most iconic waterfalls – Canyon Falls and Sunset Falls – to a trickle, and severely impact fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and quantity, recreation, and aesthetic values. 

“This proposal flies in the face of Washington state Scenic Rivers law, and the intent to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in our state,” said Steve Starlund, of Washington State Parks, in the Seattle Times article.

A group of eight conservation and recreation organizations, including Washington Wild, sent a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene and stop permitting for the Sunset Falls project. In that letter, they site the substantial environmental impacts and minimal power generation. The project may also not be economically feasible. Previous developers have applied for a permit to dam the South Fork Skykomish, only to find that the river flows would not generate significant electricity.

"It's just one of those truly majestic, magical places that really define our region. So many rivers have experienced industrial development, and this is one that has not. To put in at the base of Sunset Falls is a unique and special experience, and the thought of blasting those rocks to me frankly is sacrilegious." said Tom O'Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director of American Whitewater, in the Seattle Times article.

Photo by Tom O'Keefe
The local community and environmental groups are not opposed to all hydropower generation; rather, they want to see it done in a way that minimizes the impact to the natural environment. In fact, hydropower generation in Washington State can be significantly expanded without having to build any new dams whatsoever! According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, making efficiency improvements and adding hydro to existing water storage dams can greatly increase the amount of power available to Washingtonians.

To learn more about the Sunset Falls Dam project, watch this YouTube video.

The Sunset Falls Dam is not the only small hydropower project threatening some of our last remaining free flowing rivers and streams in the Cascades. A renewed emphasis on alternative energy sources, including hydropower, has sparked a “gold rush” for new small hydro development opportunities in our backcountry streams and rivers. In the very same watershed of the proposed Sunset Falls Dam, there are additional permit applications for upstream tributaries including – Martin Creek and Barclay Creek. And recently, the first new dam in 20 years was built on Youngs Creek, which is a tributary to the main stem of the Skykomish River.

Elsewhere in the central Cascades, there is a proposed dam project on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie river, which has been found eligible and partly recommended for designation as a Wild and Scenic River by the U.S. Forest Service. The Black Canyon Dam Project poses many of the same issues as the Sunset Falls Dam project, as a result is knee deep in controversy

Next Tuesday, June 19, there will meetings held in North Bend to discuss the Black Canyon Dam. Please consider attending and voicing your concerns about the project.

Meeting Details: 

Date and Time: Tuesday, June 19, 2012, Moring Scoping Meeting – 11:00 a.m. and the Evening Scoping Meeting – 6:00pm.

Virtual Site Review
Date and Time: Tuesday, June 19, 2012, 2:00 p.m.

Location for all meetings:
Cedar River Watershed Education Center Auditorium,
19901 Cedar Falls Road SE, North Bend, WA  98045

More background information can be found here:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for shining a light on this disturbing new Dam proposal. Snohomish County PUD Ratepayers, Skykomish River area Residents and Concerned Citizens have started a petition to urge SnoPUD to abandon their misguided plans for the Sunset Falls Dam. A link to the petition, along with more information about the proposed project can be found at