FAQ about the Snohomish County Public Utility District’s Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project
(1) SnoPUD Wants to Build A New Dam?
Washington State’s Snohomish County Public Utility District #1 (SnoPUD) has dusted off some very old plans to build a dam and power plant on the South Fork of the Skykomish River (the “Sky”) near Sunset Falls, in Index, WA referred to as the Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project.1
(2) Sunset Falls Location is Not Economically nor Environmentally Feasible
Sunset Falls on the Skykomish River has been studied and rejected for hydropower at least four times in the past 30 years because it is not economically feasible and it is in an extremely environmentally sensitive location.2
(3) Proposed Dam Location is on The Original Washington State Designated “Scenic River”
In 1977, the Skykomish River became the centerpiece of legislation creating the Washington State Scenic River System (79A.55 RCW), intended to “protect and preserve the natural character of such rivers and fulfill other conservation purposes.”3 Rivers in the system “shall be preserved in as natural a condition as practical and that overuse of such rivers, which tends to downgrade their natural condition, shall be discouraged.”4 The Skykomish is one of only four rivers in Washington State on that list.5
(4) Sunset Falls Area is Intended to be Protected From Hydropower Development
Sunset Falls is in a Northwest Power and Conservation Council Protected Area from hydropower development because the Council has determined that “such development would have major negative impacts that could not be reversed.”6
(5) Skykomish river is Nationally Recognized for its “Outstanding Remarkable Values” with its nomination to Congress for Federal Wild and Sceic Status
The South Fork of the Skykomish River has been recommended to Congress for National Wild and Scenic River designation by the U.S. Forest Service. This was part of the 1990 Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest Plan and the river is also listed by the National Park Service on the National Rivers Inventory with a potential classification as a recreational resource. This section of the Skykomish is noted as having “outstanding remarkable values” including Scenery, Recreation, Fish and Wildlife.7
(6) Skykomish River is Home to Threatened Salmon and Bull Trout
The Skykomish River is home to ESA threatened 8 Chinook salmon9 (king salmon) and numerous species of other wild salmon, will be directly impacted by this Sunset Fish Passage and Energy project. Also at risk will be the river’s threatened bull trout10, river otters11, aquatic birds, raptors and amphibians.
(7) Skykomish River is Designated Critical Habitat
The Skykomish River has been designated by the National Fisheries Service as critical habitat for threatened Puget Sound Chinook Salmon (King Salmon) and Bull Trout.12
(8) Salmon are Already at a Historically Low Levels
Pacific Northwest salmon stocks are presently at historically low levels.13 Extensive efforts are being made to preserve spawning habitat and prevent the extinction of these species.14,15
(9) Voters Have Already Said “NO” to New Hydro-power Projects on Washington’s Rivers
SnoPUD’s proposed Sunset Fish Passage and Energy project is in blatant disregard of voter approved I-937 mandates.16 New dams on fresh water do not qualify for Renewable Energy Credits, which are mandatory for power companies in Washington State. (WAC 194-37) The Sunset Falls Hydropower Project violates SnoPUD’s own energy resource management plan, which requires it “to comply with the mandates of I-937”17 .
(10) Dams are Known to Destroy the Natural Environment
No matter what costly mitigation provisions are included by SnoPUD as part of the overall project, the impact of dams (Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project) on wild and pristine river ecosystems is significant and well documented.18,19 The impact that dams, even ones marketed as “low impact” or “run of river,” have already had the following impacts on Northwest Rivers:
- a. Disrupted river flows
- b. Degraded water quality
- c. Blocked the movement of a river’s vital nutrients and sediment
- d. Destroyed fish and wildlife habitat
- e. Impeded migration of fish and other aquatic species
- f. Eliminated recreational opportunities
(11) Dams Mirror the Predicted Negative Impacts of Climate Change
The impacts that dams have already had on the Northwest’s rivers mirror the predicted impacts of climate change. Dams and hydropower plants:
- a. Increase damage to downstream migrating fish through abrasion
- b. Reduce water oxygen levels
- c. Reduce fish and wildlife resiliency
- d. Disturb habitats
- e. Alter amount and timing of stream flows
- f. Increase water temperature
- g. Decrease water quality & quantity
- h. Reduce fish migration
- i. Increase species extinction
- j. Reduce river levels
(12) Taxpayers Are Currently Spending Millions to Remove Existing Dams
Taxpayers are now spending hundreds of millions of dollars, an estimated $324.7 million, to remove two Washington State dams on the Elwha River due to the enormous environmental devastation they have caused.22 Nationwide, at least 925 dams have been removed so far.23
(13) Popular Northwest Hiking Trails will be Seriously Affected
The proposed Sunset Fish Passage and Energy project dam is below the hiking trails that lead to Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls, so the present stunning view of Sunset Falls from the trail and the Lake Serene lookout would be transformed into a view of a partially dewatered waterfall, a power plant and electrical transmission lines.24
(14) Minimal Power Output
SnoPUD estimates the Sunset Fish Passage and Energy project will cost rate-payers at least $150 million yet admits that it will produce only about 1% of its overall power needs once completed. According to the Hydropower Reform Coalition, utilities typically overestimate new energy generation capacity by 40-50%25 so overall power production would likely be significantly less than 1%.
(15) Is SnoPUD Intentionally Misleading the Public?
SnoPUD is publicly marketing the Sunset Fish Passage and Energy project’s nameplate capacity as 30 MW.26 However, the actual generation will depend upon minimum stream flows. As such, PUD admits the project’s actual best case capacity would be and average of 13.7 MW27, less than half the nameplate capacity. PUD has stated that power production will coincide with peak demand in winter, but their own studies show that this is not so. Peak production can only occur during spring runoff when Northwest hydropower is already over producing, causing the shutdown of wind power at a cost of millions of dollars to ratepayers.
(16) Can SnoPUD be Trusted?
The SnoPUD board commissioner David Aldrich has stated “that [they] will not force this project on anyone,”28 yet they are pushing ahead despite major resistance. Strongly opposed are Washington State residents 29 and environmental agencies including The Sierra Club, Alpine Lakes Protection Society, American Rivers, American Whitewater, the Hydropower Reform Coalition, the North Cascades Conservation Council, The Mountaineers, Friends of Heybrook Ridge, and Washington Wild30 – so far. That is in addition fishing groups, whitewater enthusiasts, kayakers, birders, hikers, local businesses and voters recognizing the dangers of new hydro and the need for green energy. In 2006, Washington voters passed initiative I-937, the clean energy initiative that mandates Washington power companies increase their renewable energy generation annually, to 15% by 2020. Renewable energy specifically excludes the creation of new impoundments (dams) on fresh water rivers. 31
(17) Will SnoPUD Knowingly Place Human Lives At Risk?
The Skykomish has long been used for recreation. The location of the weir, or low head dam, would be located in an area historically full of kayakers, rafters and swimmers. The current PUD design dramatically reduces the amount of water available for recreation. The project is so poorly designed, in an attempt to mitigate the amount of the river it would render unusable, it offers an area just after the dam for swimmers and rafters to put in to continue down the river – which is ironically where currents are so swift that they are typically inescapable until they flow over Canyon Falls, a deadly waterfall.
(18) Inefficient Use of Rate-Payer Dollars
According to the US Department of Energy more than 2652 megawatts of power could be added in Washington State by simply improving the efficiency and adding hydro at existing dams. Building new dams at all of the state’s remaining potential hydro sites, even the small ones and environmentally sensitive ones, would add only 762 megawatts.35
(19) Project Does NOT Qualify for WA Renewable Energy Standards, contrary to SnoPUD Claims
SnoPUD is marketing this project as renewable energy36 when Washington State’s I-937 definition of renewable energy specifically excludes new hydro projects on fresh water.37
(20) Hydro is NOT Green Energy, contrary to SnoPUD’s Claims
SnoPUD’s website refers to hydropower as “A proven technology, competitive in price to other green resources.”38 This statement implies that small hydro is green. According to NewScientist Magazine, “The green image of hydro power as a benign alternative to fossil fuels is false, says Éric Duchemin, a consultant for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). ‘Everyone thinks hydro is very clean, but this is not the case,’ he says. Hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels.”39
- http://www.snopud.com/PowerSupply/hydro/sunsetfalls/sfdocs.ashx?p=1959 FERC Project No. 14295-000
- A number of hydropower projects have been proposed at Sunset Falls over the years. Puget Sound Energy explored the site early in the 20th century. Snohomish PUD was awarded a preliminary permit for the site in September 1981 (FERC P-4786) but in September 1984 made a decision not to further pursue the project after it was determined that it was marginally feasible and had several sensitive issues. Pacific Hydro submitted a permit application in October 1984 (FERC P-8644) that it withdrew in September 1985. Sunset Falls LP submitted a permit application in September 1991 (FERC P-11195) that it withdrew in September 1993. Tacoma Public Utilities submitted a permit application in December 1991 (FERC P-11216) that it withdrew in May 1992.
- Revised Code of Washington 79A.55.
- Revised Code of Washington 79A.55.005
- Land Resource and Management Plan, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Appendix E, June 1990; NWPPC Protected Areas Amendment (Sept. 14, 1988).
- Endangered Species Act (ESA). The federal law, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544, that provides for protection and recovery of endangered or threatened species of fish, wildlife, or plant.
- Hydropower Reform Coalition’s “Low Power, Big Problems: How Low-Power Hydropower Dams Hurt Rivers” February 2009
- Hydropower Reform Coalition “Low Power, Big Problems: How Low-Power Hydropower Dams Hurt Rivers.” February 2009
- Page 16 of the Sunset Falls Update Sept 2011
- The preliminary permit application, at page 4, states that “estimated average annual power generation is approximately 120,000,000 kWh corresponding to average generation at 13.7 MW. FERC eLibrary Accession No. 20110928-5081.
- Motion to Intervene in Opposition, filed Dec 20, 2011, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission by American Whitewater, Project No. 14295-000
- www.sos.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/text/i937.pdf Section 3-10 (a)
- The U.S. Hydropower Resource Assessment for Washington, prepared in 1997 by Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, lists 249 existing dams in Washington that do not produce power (such as flood control or storage dams) or where the total power has not yet been fully developed (efficiency upgrades). The report models potential development of 2,652 MW that could be added simply by improving efficiencies or adding hydro to non-power dams. (Developing all the state’s potential hydro sites through construction of new dams would only add 762MW).