Sun Setting On Sunset Falls?

Feb 15, 2012

SKYKOMISH RIVER, Wash. -- The Skykomish is one of the only major rivers in Washington that has not been dammed for hydropower. The river runs from the Cascade Mountains and empties into Northern Puget Sound. It’s a hot spot for wildlife and outdoor recreation. It could also be a hotspot for hydropower. Ashley Ahearn reports.

Jeff Smith: “Let’s go outside here real quick and we can take a walk down there.”

Jeff Smith lives on a quiet bend of the Skykomish River with his wife and three dogs. As we step out onto his back deck it feels like we’ve stepped into a postcard of the scenic west.

Smith: “It’s one of the most spectacular spots in the whole country. You’ve got Lake Serene at the bottom of the cliffs of mount Index. You’ve got bridal veil falls spilling out of there. This is the South Fork of the Skykomish river, flows out of the alpine lakes wilderness.”

Snowy peaks frame evergreen-lined ridges – and just below us the river sparkles in the mid day sun. Wild geese bob around lazily in the eddies.

Smith has lived on the Skykomish for 20 years. It’s not hard to see why he’s devoted to this place – and why he’s worried about its future. He points upriver from where we’re standing.

Smith: “So the dam site would go across the river, right in here somewhere right below the cliffs of Mount Index.”

Snohomish Public Utilities District wants to divert some of the water out of the river above Smith’s house. Then they’d pipe it downhill - past two waterfalls and through a series of turbines to generate power.

The water would then be released back into the river. Because of this diversion there will be less water flowing by Smith’s house. It’s also going to decrease the flows over the two waterfalls.

Smith: “So we see out here this amazingly beautiful free-flowing river would become a streamlet of some sort. It’s hard to say exactly what it would look like but it’s likely you could probably walk across the river.”

If the utility gets approval to go ahead with the dam construction Smith says they would build a road right through his property - and a parking lot where his garden is now. But he says this isn’t just about him – it’s bigger.

Ashley Ahearn: "You’re angry"

Jeff Smith: “I am. Who wouldn’t be? We should all be saying no to this type of thing. It’s destroying something that’s eternal for something that’s temporary. That’s really what it comes down to.”

Kim Moore: “Mr. Smith is right, we’d probably have to have a road that goes through his property.”

Kim Moore is the lead on the Sunset Falls project for the Snohomish Public Utilities District. The utility surveyed over 140 potential sites for new hydropower.

Moore: “Sunset falls is one of the most – in fact the most attractive in the four county area that we’ve reviewed so I think it behooves the district to look at that right in our backyard.”

Demand for power in Snohomish County is growing. Right now the utility buys 90% of the power it delivers to its customers from outside of the county. Moore says the utility would prefer to be generating its own power.

The Sunset Falls project would provide enough power for about 3 percent of SnoPUD’s customers.

They’re also looking at other energy sources like wind and geothermal.

Moore: “Currently there isn’t any one big solution that handles all your energy needs so I guess you add up enough 3 percents you have a real number.”

Salmon will not be affected by the hydropower project because they end their migration below the falls. But endangered bull trout do live in the section of river that would lose some of its water to the pipes and turbines.

There are about 10,000 people that raft the Skykomish each year. But they put their rafts in below where the power plant would be so the project wouldn’t affect them.

Tom O’Keefe is the head of American Whitewater – a nonprofit that represents whitewater rafters and kayakers around the country. He says even though recreational use won’t be impacted, this project is still a bad idea.

O’Keefe: “The Skykomish river is one of just a very small handful of rivers in the state that do not have any dams or hydropower development on them. And we just feel that there are some places that should not be developed for hydropower and this is one of them.

Snohomish Public Utility District has filed an application to further research the site. They should find out if they’re approved within the next month.

Then they will have three years to research the site before applying for a federal license to move ahead with the necessary environmental permits before construction.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network