A river as magnificent as the Skagit will inevitably be fought over, and now war clouds are gathering. The Skagit is the biggest river that empties into Puget Sound. In Washington state, it alone holds all six species of salmonids, three of which are listed as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Skagit delta is where diverse interests converge — fish, farms, and now, Seattle’s endless need for hydroelectric power.
The delta carries the weight of more than a century of farming enterprise that eventually covered about 80 percent of its fertile estuary. Also, a century ago, Seattle City Light’s first dam on the river 70 miles up the Cascades’ west slope, began pumping power to the city.
Between the shrinking salmon habitat in the Skagit flats, and City Light’s dams, centuries of spiritual and nutritional sustenance were put at risk for native people – Swinomish, Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle tribes in Skagit County.
It puts a newer and more critical focus on Seattle City Light, the public utility that poured hydroelectric power into its city that became an incubator of enormous wealth, from Boeing to Microsoft. City Light itself is a monument to the power of public power. Few then imagined that the Skagit River’s plentiful salmon runs could run out, because of habitat loss, river-straddling dams blocking fish passage, overfishing and other causes.
The Seattle utility is seeking approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to relicense its three dams in the upper Skagit River for another 50 years. It is conducting negotiations with a panel of state and federal agencies with the authority to place conditions on the license. The discussions are being held in secret, a process set out in FERC-approved protocols.
City Light has long claimed that its dams had little effect on salmon spawning grounds that the tribes say were blocked by Gorge Dam. The Upper Skagit and Sauk-Suiattle tribes demanded that this relicensing process must include a plan for moving fish around the dams. That position drew unanimous support from state and federal officials, much to the surprise of City Light. Last April, City Light surrendered, agreeing to study the possibility of using a “trap and haul” system similar to that used by other hydroelectric utilities.
At the negotiating table with City Light are the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), guardian of threatened fish species, along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and North Cascades National Park. All federal agencies, by law, have trust duty to the tribes to assure that their rights and sovereignty are protected.
Not at the table while their turf is being analyzed and discussed are representatives of Skagit County government and the agency vital to delta farming — the Dike and Drainage Districts Consortium. Neither agency is happy about their exclusion. City Light is seen as a sort of looming imperial presence in the lower Skagit Valley, in which it had shown little interest until now.
The agricultural community is already feeling some angst because NMFS, just over two years ago, called a halt to the tidegate improvement program. The Swinomish had complained about the way the program was operating.
The dike and drainage districts operate 103 tidegates that, when opened, drain excess water from the fields. When closed the gates block incoming tides that would otherwise inundate fields. It is plain and simple — no tidegates, fewer farms left on the delta.
The river’s fertile delta is where up to 90 percent of Skagit County’s more than $300 million in agricultural products are produced. That bounty is weighed against the future of the river’s threatened species of salmon – Bull Trout, Steelhead, and the iconic Chinook, or king salmon. (Steelhead are salmonids, but technically, trout.)
Skagit County is represented by its senior civil deputy prosecutor, Will Honea, who tried without success to get City Light to let the county and the Dike and Drainage Districts Consortium take a place at the table. Instead, the county and the dike districts were left on a committee that has no say in what conditions City Light would have to meet for its licensing. But there is an “administrative litigation” process within FERC to which any aggrieved party can appeal. Skagit County and the diking districts could well find themselves going that route.
“For the past two and a half years, Seattle City Light has excluded Skagit local government from settlement talks with agencies and tribes in which they’re discussing major mitigation plans on the Skagit delta,” Honea said.
City Light says the negotiations are limited to the three tribes and state and federal agencies that have the authority to impose certain conditions on the utility’s license. The conditions will weigh heavily in favor of practices that give the three threatened species a chance to revive.
There was a program developed in 2008, with some acceptance from the Swinomish Tribe, to accomplish fish habitat restoration while assuring that tidegate improvements could be made as well. It was called the Tidegates and Fish Initiative (TFI). NMFS wrote a biological opinion that would guide the program.
A key consideration is how much farmland in the delta would be converted into fish habitat. There was a target of 2,700 acres roughly divided between state-owned and privately-owned lands. The habitat project on the last bit of public land is near completion. Private land acquisition is up next.
However, the Swinomish had become impatient with delays in turning some private land into salmon habitat and demanded a timetable for marking progress going forward.
Communications began to flow regularly from Amy Trainer, environmental policy director for the Swinomish, to NMFS. She replaced Larry Wasserman, who retired a few years ago after 20 years as the tribe’s advisor. Trainer began raising what she called “serious concerns” about the implementation of the TFI program late in 2020. In a March 2, 2021, letter to NMFS and the TFI Oversight Committee, she pointed several items in the TFI program that she thought were problematic. What she may be proposing in the secret negotiations with City Light is not clear and she isn’t saying much about it publicly.
The NMFS official who had, for nine years, been managing the NMFS relationship with the dike and drainage districts was Janet Curran. She had been trying to make the program work, associates said. While acknowledging the lagging timetable, Curran said in a report that no one party was the cause. It was a combination of circumstances, including delays in getting permits.
Curran still suggested in her report that NMFS try to work through the problems to keep the TFI program moving. She was encountering resistance within her own agency, associates said, and her Dec. 4, 2020, recommendations were never released, except through public records requests. She later departed to work with the Army Corps of Engineers.
The dike districts were alarmed at the loss of the program. NMFS then said that the dike districts could apply for permits from the Corps on a project-by-project basis. District 12, the largest of the districts that fronts on Padilla Bay, did just that, seeking permits for three separate tidegate improvements.
The district heard nothing for nine months before receiving a rejection from the agency. It was a letter of “non-concurrence.” The tide district’s lawyers on Oct. 18 of this year filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue NMFS over the lack of response.
Jenna Friebel is executive director of the Dike and Drainage Districts Consortium. She has been frustrated by NMFS’s lack of responsiveness which has left the tidegate issue, and delta farmers, suspended in doubt.
“Since the mid-2000s the districts have supported habitat restoration projects,” she said. “District and local community support is essential for continued progress toward habitat restoration goals in the Skagit. It is unacceptable that NMFS has not prioritized resolution of the TFI dispute. It is also unacceptable that local government has been shut out of the [Seattle City Light] negotiations.”
Now, Seattle City Light may be offering the Swinomish the leverage they might have once just dreamed of. It is not official, but there is some speculation in the lower valley that City Light has a pot of money to fund habitat restoration in the Skagit delta. What that might mean is still being negotiated behind closed doors in Seattle.