By Chris Hendrickson, Valley News
It was an unlikely caravan.
On Wednesday, June 12, Snohomish County PUD Assistant General Manager Kim Moore and others led representatives from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, visiting from Washington, D.C., on a site tour, showing them the area proposed for PUD’s Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project, located on the Skykomish River one mile south of the town of Index.
Members of opposing organizations such as Save the Skykomish River, local media agencies, residents and concerned citizens joined them, forming a lengthy procession which wound through the gravel roadways around the South Fork of the Skykomish River.
A large group of protesters gathered at Sunset Falls, holding signs, and residents of the Canyon Falls area passed out lemonade and cookies decorated with an anti-dam logo to passing vehicles.
The PUD is proposing that an inflatable water-diversion weir, or dam, be installed above Sunset and Canyon Falls. The weir would measure seven feet in height during times of full inflation. The weir would be 132 feet long, stretching across the expanse of the river, and set into a concrete base. As the flows of the river increase or decrease, the weir expands and retracts accordingly. During flooding or other excessively high flows, the weir would lay flat, as it would during insufficient flows or times of non-generation.
The diverted water would enter into a subterranean intake area, flow through an approximately 2,235-foot long underground tunnel which would be 19.5 feet in diameter and horseshoe-shaped.
The rerouted water would come out below Sunset Falls near the trap-and-haul, where a semi-underground powerhouse would be constructed. Improvements to the trap-and-haul facility would be made, modernizing the structure which was built in 1958.
The tour began at the home of Jeff Smith, whose property has been designated as the site of the proposed intake structure, and ended at the trap-and-haul facility beside Sunset Falls. The trap-and-haul facility is located on state-owned property, as would be the powerhouse.
The river was crystal clear at the proposed intake site, snow still speckling the top of Mount Index as Moore described the proposed design and answered questions.
The tour was a precursor to a town meeting that was held at the Index Fire Station at 6 p.m., which offered citizens the opportunity to meet with the PUD and FERC to voice their concerns about the proposed hydroelectric project. The meeting was standing-room only, with well over 100 attendees, over 30 of whom signed up to address the commission.
The meeting was led by FERC Fisheries Biologist John C. Baummer.
“We’re here tonight to hear your concerns and any additional information that may be available for us to prepare our environmental document,” said Baummer.
Emotions, at times, ran high.
Among the issues presented by residents and river advocates, several were prominent. Among them were lack of a proposed recreation study, lack of a proposed traffic impact study, concerns over ground contamination such as arsenic and other heavy metals, the cost of the project versus the projected benefit, as well as the destruction of the natural beauty of the area.
Residents, recreationists and river advocates all agreed that, as one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the state, the Skyomish should be protected. While the river is designated as a Washington State Wild and Scenic River, it is currently not a Federal Wild and Scenic River, a classification which would prohibit this project entirely. The state classification, while discouraging construction, does not disallow it.
Another concern of the opposition is that the decreased flow of the river could negatively impact the safe downstream migration of juvenile salmon that pass over Sunset Falls.
Sunset Falls has been studied as a candidate for generating hydroelectric power numerous times since the 1980s. The most recent preliminary permit application was submitted in 1991 by Tacoma Public Utilities, whose proposal was intervened upon by the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA filed a petition to deny preliminary application in March of 1992 partly based on concerns regarding in-stream flows and fish passage.
PUD’s website states that: “A number of factors, both to the project design and to the regional energy market, have changed since this location was first looked at by the PUD in the early 1980s and by Tacoma Utilities in the early 1990s.”
Index Riversites resident Lynne Kelly spoke in opposition of the project. She has lived in her cabin, which is located about a quarter-mile downstream of Sunset Falls, for nearly 30 years.
“There are reasons proposals at this site have repeatedly failed for the last hundred years,” said Kelly.
She continued, discussing a concern widespread throughout the opposition.
“Experts agree that, once the math is done, at best this dam will result in 1 percent or less of the county’s power needs. The bottom line here is that this dam proposal costs too much for too little power. It is important to note that PUD does not own the land they require for this project, nor the roads they need to access the site,” said Kelly.
Kelly quoted PUD General Manager Steve Klein from a written brief about renewable energy in which Klein wrote about making good decisions based on sound moral and ethical principles.
“There is nothing moral or ethical about acquiring property through eminent domain for such a small amount of energy,” said Kelly.
Former Monroe Mayor Donnetta Walser was in attendance and spoke in opposition of the dam. She was representing the Snohomish County League of Women Voters, of which she is the president, and also the U.S. Highway 2 Safety Coalition, of which she is vice chair.
Walser stated that getting a legitimate cost versus benefit analysis is challenging. Her concern is that the project simply doesn’t balance out.
PUD is estimating that the project will cost between $110 and $175 million and will supply, on average, 13.7 megawatts of output, sufficient to power approximately 10,275 homes.
“I can tell you one thing. Any business that approached the city with a plan like this… It would be crazy. It doesn’t make sense,” said Walser.
Walser also discussed the need for a traffic study to be done to examine potential impacts the construction will have on U.S. 2, including large trucks which would be utilized to haul materials in and out of the site.
Approximately 165,000 cubic yards of granite would be excavated from the intake area and the power tunnel during construction. This material would be transported via U.S. 2.
“This is a dangerous highway,” said Walser. “It’s one of the most dangerous highways in the state, if not in the nation.”
Walser expressed concern that the FERC is planning an environmental assessment rather than an environmental impact study, and also said that she was invited by State Senator Kirk Pearson to attend the meeting, take notes, and report back to him.
Pearson voiced his opposition in February, in a letter addressed to the FERC. Pearson was unable to attend the public site tour or the community meeting due to being called away for a special session in Olympia, but took time to provide the following quote, reiterating his opposition to the proposed dam:
“The proposed hydro project on the south fork of the Skykomish will hurt rate payers who have to pay millions for its construction and everyone who loves the natural beauty of Sunset and Canyon Falls,” stated Pearson.
Another issue for dam opposition has been a lack of attendance by the PUD commissioners at any of the public meetings.
“I was so disappointed that PUD made sure to have their attorney present for the public site tour and public meetings, but there was not one single PUD commissioner present at any of the three public forums,” said Canyon Falls resident Andrea Matzke after the meeting. “If they are the ultimate decision makers on this majorly-opposed project, shouldn’t they want to know their constituents’ and ratepayers’ concerns?”
Local resident Mike Kelly (not related to Lynne Kelly) was the sole person to speak at the meeting and offer support.
“Initially when the first hearings came along, they asked for suggestions. I gave PUD a lot of suggestions and I think they did a pretty good job of addressing them,” said Kelly.
Kelly stated that he feels that a dam could help reduce the flooding that occurs in the area, lowering the number of costly road washouts.
After Wednesday’s meeting, the PUD went over their next steps in the process; again stressing that all of the work done so far is due diligence to determine whether or not it makes sense to move forward with the project.
A court stenographer was present at the community meeting, and the FERC is transcribing all public testimony for further review by the PUD. The PUD’s next step will be to revise their current study plan.
“In the pre-application document, we listed what studies we thought we ought to do,” said Moore.
Moore acknowledged the need for some studies that were not included in the original study plan; a recreation study, a traffic impact study, and an investigation to determine the existence of any ground contamination.
Moore stated that they will take a harder look at the traffic impacts, also remarking that, in order to proceed, they will need permanent access to the roads in the surrounding area.
“At some point, if we proceed, I see us negotiating with Mt. Index Riversites on improvements to the local roads,” said Moore.
The Mt. Index Riversites Board of Directors is neutral in regards to the project, and have not taken a position of either support or opposition. The Mt. Index Riversites Community Club owns a portion of the Mt. Index Road which is a private roadway and a required point of access for the project.
Moore will be sharing the concerns of the community to PUD’s commissioners, and stated that he will be briefing them on Wednesday’s meeting.
“My job is to make sure that the commissioners have all the information,” said Moore.
Moore recognized that people often question the economics of the project.
“It’s the lowest cost renewable energy we have found in five years of looking,” said Moore. “We think it’s a good investment for the county, but obviously the decision will be made once we have all the information.”
The next public forum is scheduled for this fall.
“We’ll have another meeting that FERC will attend on October 2. The location and time of that has not been established,” said Moore.
Once the study plan has been revised, it will need to be approved by the FERC before any of the studies are officially conducted. PUD stated that FERC will be making that decision early next year.
River advocates, residents, supporters and opposition have until July 19 to submit written comments to the FERC if they did not get the opportunity to voice concerns at the meeting.
“We will address all realistic concerns,” said Moore.
For more information on PUD’s proposal, visit: http://tinyurl.com/sunsetfalls.
For more information on Save the Skykomish River and instructions on filing comments to the FERC, visit: http://www.savetheskyriver.org/.