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Originally published Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 6:24 AM

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Utility looks to dam Skykomish for power

Snohomish County Public Utility District is looking into building a hydroelectric project on the Skykomish River, one of the last free-flowing rivers left in Washington.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Just as Washington makes an international splash for the largest dam removal ever in North America, a local utility is proposing to build a hydroelectric project on one of the last free-flowing rivers in the state.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District is exploring whether to build an inflatable weir on the Skykomish River above Canyon Falls, downstream from Index.

Basically a piece of steel held up by a rubber inner tube, the weir could be inflated to stand as high as eight feet, or lie on the riverbed, depending on flows. The utility would build a powerhouse on the north side of Sunset Falls, in the same location as an existing state trap-and-haul facility, which would be replaced as part of the project.

When fully inflated, the 55-foot-wide weir, built above Canyon Falls, would impound a pool of up to 2 acres and generate enough power for about 10,000 homes on average, and up to 30,000 during higher flows in the winter.

The weir could be collapsed at high flows, to avoid exacerbating flooding, or during low flows, when no power could be generated. An intake at the weir would carry water about 2,300 feet to the powerhouse downstream on the north side of Sunset Falls in a tunnel under the river.

When the weir is deflated — which the utility estimates would be about 30 percent of the time — the river also would be able to flush debris and gravel downstream.

The utility is interested in the project as one of several ways to generate more power to meet the needs of its customers, said Steve Klein, general manager for SnoPUD, which he said is committed to growing its resources by conservation and non-fossil fuel sources.

The hydro project, Klein said, fits the utility's mission to keep its power sources local and renewable, from geothermal to tidal power.

Klein emphasized the utility is still in research mode. "To the extent that we can develop a diversity of renewable power in our own backyard, there are many potential benefits. People have said this is so small, it's not worth it, don't do it. But there aren't any big projects out there, and we do not have any fossil-fuel resources, not even natural gas, and we don't want them because of the volatility."

Scenic jewel

The proposal is controversial, as have been several proposals to dam the Skykomish, at the same location, going back a century. But none has ever been built.

Beloved by recreationists, the Skykomish is the centerpiece of one of the first new wilderness areas created by Congress in a generation, and a scenic jewel in the center of a community that has battled to protect its natural beauty. A logging proposal on nearby Heybrook Ridge was defeated in 2008 when residents raised more than $500,000 toward purchase of the property to permanently protect it.

The river also has been singled out for protection in city, county, state, regional and federal planning efforts, from the five-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council to the Washington State Parks Commission.

"This proposal flies in the face of the Washington state scenic-rivers law, and the intent to protect one of the last free-flowing rivers in our state," said Steve Starlund of Washington State Parks, who managed the Washington State Scenic River plan.

With its granite boulders, teal waters and destination waterfalls, including Sunset Falls, just downstream of the town of Index, the Skykomish has long been recognized as a special place, worthy of protection, Starlund said. "It took eons to carve the solid granite of those waterfalls. For a small amount of power it would sacrifice some of the inherent beauty of the Northwest. Professionally, I don't think so."

The U.S. Forest Service as far back as 1990 recognized the special qualities of the Skykomish, recommending it as suitable for federal wild and scenic designation in its forest plan. However that designation was never bestowed by Congress.

Whitewater recreationists wince at the proposed development, which would include dynamiting rocks from which kayakers today launch their boats to trek down some of the most enticing whitewater in Washington.

"It's just one of those truly majestic, magical places that really define our region," said Tom O'Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director of American Whitewater. "So many rivers have experienced industrial development, and this is one that has not. To put in at the base of Sunset Falls is a unique and special experience, and the thought of blasting those rocks to me frankly is sacrilegious."

Backers of the dam at the utility say the project could be a way to work out improved access for recreation, as well as rebuild and improve a trap-and-haul facility at the falls built by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, to collect salmon at the base of the falls and haul the fish in a truck to habitat above.

But to O'Keefe, damming the river is no way to improve it. "Our perspective is we certainly are not opposed to hydropower, but there are certain places where we think it is inappropriate, and the Skykomish is one of those places."

Jeff Smith's riverside property adjoins the $150 million proposed project, which would stretch all the way across the river right in the middle of an unspoiled view of Mount Index.

"This will disfigure a hallowed place," Smith said. "Trading the permanent desecration of a wild and scenic place for a small amount of power is a violation of the values that have guided the culture of the Northwest for many decades."

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees private hydropower development, has granted SnoPUD a permit to explore the project, the first stage in what is expected to be at least a 10-year review process to discuss the project, and proposed mitigation.

Walking along his riverside property with its sweeping views of the mountains, Smith said he and his neighbors don't want mitigation — or years of process to discuss the project. They want it stopped, now.

"Power can be generated in lots of ways. But this is one of those rare places that is irreplaceable, that has had a profound impact on the human spirit for centuries. No amount of mitigation changes that."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @lyndavmapes.

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