Sky Valley residents question hydroelectric proposal for scenic falls
By Chris Hendrickson, special to the Monitor
Green energy is supposed to preserve the environment. But opponents of a small inflatable dam proposed for the Sunset Falls area of the Skykomish River fear that the project could do the environment more harm than good.
A proposal for an inflatable 30-megawatt hydroelectric weir, or dam, on the south fork of the Skykomish River above Canyon and Sunset Falls is meeting with opposition from local residents, despite revisions to the original design that was presented in October, 2011.
The opposition is coming from river advocates, local residents and property owners concerned about wildlife, aesthetics, the methods proposed to blast through granite, construction traffic, and the cost of the project, which is estimated at $150 million.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Committee issued a permit to Snohomish County PUD on March 2, 2012, which enables them to study the potential project for three years until a determination of feasibility can be made.
The PUD is proposing an inflatable weir be installed above Canyon Falls. The weir, when fully inflated, measures seven feet in height from the base of the river, and would be 132 feet wide. It is attached to a concrete foundation set into the riverbed at a depth not yet determined, and is contingent on the composition of the riverbed.
The river is typically more than eight feet deep at the intake area, and would maintain a one-foot minimum flow of water over the top of the weir. As flows in the river increase or decrease, the inflatable “bladder” of the weir expands and retracts accordingly. During excessively high flows, the weir, completely deflated, would lay flat, as it would during times of non-generation.
No generation would occur during times of inadequate flows, and a specific shut-down time period from mid-July to mid-October has been planned.
Diverted water would enter into a subterranean intake area, flowing into a cavernous opening and proceeding down a 2,200 foot long, 19.5-foot-high tunnel, which would be approximately 80 – 150 feet underground and carved out of solid bedrock.
The re-routed river water would come out below Sunset Falls, where the PUD would construct a semi-underground powerhouse. The total area of river between the intake and the powerhouse is 1.1 miles.
The proposal is drastically different from their original proposal, which was far more visually disruptive at the intake site. In response to concerned residents the PUD altered their design after determining that they could carve out the existing granite and shield 90 percent of the intake from view, also reducing the noise level.
In addition to creating a visually non-intrusive structure, PUD would include in their project plans to extensively upgrade and refurbish a nearby trap-and-haul fish facility that has was constructed in 1958 by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Both the powerhouse and the trap-and-haul would be on state-owned property.
Safety concerns were addressed by the PUD, as well, and plans were incorporated to install a safety boom, a series of foam-filled plastic cylinders on a rope across the river to warn swimmers and rafters of the weir. Signage on the riverbanks would also be installed
They would designate an area for inner tube riders to pull-out and put-in, avoiding the weir.
Experts agree that renewable resources are critical in ensuring that future energy needs are met, as not all of the region’s growing energy needs can be met by relying solely on conservation.
Renewable power sources that PUD currently holds in their energy portfolio include wind, solar, biomass, and hydroelectric power.
“The use of small hydropower sources gives the PUD greater control of its energy supply and, as a backyard resource, minimizes the constraints on the transmission system from Eastern Washington,” stated Neil Neroutsos, spokesperson for Snohomish County PUD.
“Small hydropower projects are just one of many energy sources the PUD is using to meet growing needs as the county and Camano Island grow,” Neroutsos continued.
But many question the Skykomish River as a site for such a small hydro project.
The Skykomish River is listed as a Washington State Wild and Scenic River, a classification that discourages development but does not prohibit it. Designation as a Federal Wild and Scenic River, which would prohibit the development of the dam altogether, is still pending. Additionally, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has specified the Skykomish as a protected area against hydro development.
Jeff Smith owns the property where PUD is proposing to construct the intake cavern. He also owns the area above the river where current plans include an equipment and personnel elevator. Smith was the original founder of the organization Save the Sky River, which he started to help spread awareness of the PUD’s intentions. No longer affiliated with the group, Smith is still pursuing his opposition to the PUD’s hydropower proposal.
For Smith, this was never an argument about PUD potentially taking his property. To him it’s about the irreplaceable natural qualities of the environment he’s lived in for 25 years.
“Something that’s really been held sacred, for thousands of years, is nothing to be sacrificed so we can power a few light bulbs in Snohomish County,” he commented.
“This is not about being against technology, or hydropower. This is about placing a primacy on something that’s far more valuable than the production of a small amount of electricity,” stressed Smith.
He continued, “Places like this… It took 10 million years to create, and it would take one day to destroy it.”
Smith’s concerns include many different species of wildlife, including a family of migratory geese which come down the river every year with a cluster of babies in their tow.
Speaking of the weir, Smith stated, “It will destroy them. There’s no maybe about this.”
PUD plans include a diversion channel and fish screens within the intake area that would prevent fish from entering the power tunnel. They would conduct more studies to analyze the impact on other wildlife in the area.
Smith feels that this is a short-term solution for power with a long-term loss to the environment.
“We have what we call the miracle of the day out here. Every single day, without exception, something we call miraculous happens. We see something and we say, ‘This is it, this is the miracle of the day.’ It’s a miraculous place,” he explained.
State government has begun to voice opposition, as well. State Senator Kirk Pearson, who represents the Sky Valley in Olympia, summarized his concerns to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in a letter dated Feb. 26.
“I believe that these types of projects must be considerate of the citizens of our state and must be cost effective. Neither of these criteria are met by the current proposal,” stated Pearson.
Standing next to Sunset Falls, as water vigorously collides with weathered rock smoothed by centuries of steady flow, rainbows frequently appear in the ocean-like spray. Local residents and advocates for the falls worry about the potential reduction in the amount of water that would come through the falls as a result of the project.
Pearson addressed this in his letter. “It is my understanding that the project would greatly affect river flow over both Sunset Falls and Canyon Falls which would also take away from our state’s beautiful scenery,” he said.
Sunset Falls is the largest of three waterfalls on the south fork of the Skykomish, dropping 104 vertical feet down a 275-foot channel composed of granite. The Skykomish River is one of the last free-flowing rivers in western Washington.
Save the Sky River also continues to work towards stopping the weir proposal, and is supported by such organizations as American Rivers, American Whitewater, Friends of Heybrook Ridge, Sierra Club, North Cascades Conservation Council and others.
The project, while operating at full 30-megawatt capacity, would potentially generate power for up to 22,500 homes. On average, power generated would be enough to supply approximately 10,275 homes, about 13.7 megawatts
This preliminary feasibility study may continue for two years. Construction, if the project were to proceed, would take approximately three years.
PUD wants to be clear that currently, the research being conducted is investigative and preliminary.
“At this point, it is still a study. No final decision has been made,” said Neroutsos.
For more information on PUD’s Sunset Falls Fish Passage and Energy Project, visit http://tinyurl.com/sunsetfalls.