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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to Indian Country Today

The City of Seattle gets 20 percent of its electricity from three dams built more than 100 miles north of the city limits, on a river that is important to fish, wildlife and Coast Salish cultures.

Three tribal governments say the dams block salmon and steelhead — on which Coast Salish people have depended since time immemorial — from reaching upriver spawning and rearing habitat. The City of Seattle has agreed to study fish passage as part of the relicensing process for the dams, but opposes consideration of dam removal.

The matter is now headed to federal court.

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe filed a lawsuit June 30 in Skagit County Superior Court against the city, which owns Seattle City Light, a utility that operates Gorge Dam, Diablo Dam and Ross Dam — a series of dams and powerhouses collectively known as the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, or “the Project.” The suit was moved to U.S. District Court on July 30.

Sauk-Suiattle is one of three Indigenous nations seeking removal of Gorge Dam, the southernmost of the three dams.

The Upper Skagit Tribe paid for a billboard — featuring dead salmon in shallow water below the dam — in downtown Seattle in early July calling for the city to study the viability of removing the dam. Two candidates for mayor of Seattle say they support such a study.

According to the federal National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, the Skagit River is “the largest and most biologically important river” that drains into the Salish Sea.

“In the Tribe’s view, the biggest natural resource issue not addressed is the continued blockage of anadromous fish passage by the [dam],” the Upper Skagit Tribe’s leadership wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, in December.

In its own comment letter, the National Marine Fisheries Service said salmon mortality in turn endangers the Salish Sea’s resident pods of orcas, or killer whales, that feed primarily on Chinook salmon.

The Seattle utility has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for relicensing of the dams, and the commission ruled on July 16 that an analysis of Gorge Dam’s removal is not required as part of the relicensing process.

Endangered species

The Skagit River originates in southwest British Columbia, Canada. It flows 150 miles southwest, draining approximately 1.7 million acres on its way to Skagit Bay, near the Swinomish Reservation. The river flows through the ancestral lands of the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish and Upper Skagit tribes, and all three have treaty-reserved fishing rights there.

Seattle City Light claims it documented few salmon and steelhead north of the dam sites before Gorge Dam was built in 1924. The utility claims that natural barriers, not the dams, restrict the fishes’ upstream passage.

The tribes say their own histories prove otherwise. And in its letter to FERC in December, leaders of the Swinomish Tribe cited National Marine Fisheries Service findings that salmon have been found upstream of the Gorge Dam, so there is potential benefit of providing access to upstream habitat.

“The Swinomish Tribe’s general concerns stem from the fact that all wild salmon populations spawning in the Skagit River, including the (Endangered Species Act)-listed Chinook and Steelhead, are not recovering, and key types of habitat for Chinook and Steelhead recovery have suffered and continue to decline as a result of ongoing [dam] operations,” the letter states. “We view the relicensing process as an opportunity to correct these harms before it is too late.”

In its relicensing documents, Seattle City Light states that it understands “the profound importance” to tribes” and others of instream flows below Gorge Dam, and is working with all parties to identify appropriate flows “that consider cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, and ecological interests.”

The utility reported it is establishing a fund to benefit Endangered Species Act species in the Skagit River watershed. “The goal for this fund is to bring substantial new resources to protect, conserve, and restore the fisheries resources and aquatic habitat of the Skagit River,” the utility reported.

But removal of the Gorge Dam is, to the utility, not an option. Citing the amount of electricity generated by the three Skagit River dams, the utility claims that should any of the three dams be removed “the system as a whole [would be] materially reduced in operational value beyond the loss of the single component.”

Political interest

Colleen Echohawk, Pawnee, one of 15 candidates on the Aug. 3 primary election ballot for mayor of Seattle, said she believes the viability of removing the dam deserves study.

“Absolutely, I support that,” she told Indian Country Today. “I grew up in rural Alaska with the Upper Ahtna Athabascan community up there. Salmon is life up there and here in Coast Salish communities as well. I believe that we as a community know and can understand the issues of climate change based on salmon. I believe in that, and so I absolutely would support at least a study. Let’s understand what the impact could be. Let’s work with the tribes.”

She said tribal governments should be equal partners in any future discussions regarding the dam and its impacts.

“I promise you — it cannot continue where tribal governments don’t have access to the mayor’s office,” she said. “I would work with that tribal government myself and make sure that we are understanding the impacts on their communities and on the salmon...I understand the importance of salmon and believe it is an indicator of where we are heading with climate change.”

Echohawk couldn’t say whether electricity generated by the Gorge Dam could be replaced today by other sources. But she said that should be studied as well.

According to Seattle City Light’s website, hydroelectric dams “supply about half the power our customers need.” The other half comes from a mix of power sources — biogas, nuclear, solar and wind. Since 2001, according to the utility, Seattle City Light has helped more than 4,500 customers connect solar power systems to the grid.

The state Legislature updated the state’s solar net-metering statute in 2019, requiring electric utilities to offer to make solar power metering available to customers with solar power systems until 2029, and the state Department of Commerce annually awards grants to further the development of solar power facilities. Among the projects funded in 2019 is a public utility district’s community solar-power project that will serve part of the city of Everett.

Seattle Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller, Cherokee, another candidate for mayor, said the city needs to work with tribal governments to find ways to save salmon — installation of fish passage infrastructure, such as bypass channels, for example — until Seattle weans itself from the hydroelectric power generated by Gorge Dam.

“It’s really important for us to remember that hydro power is the cleanest and most reliable clean-fuel alternative to fossil fuels on the planet,” he told Indian Country Today. “I’m not in any way saying that the creation of hydro power did not have lasting impacts, but I also think that we are at a moment where we’re going to have to try to really sit down and work through all the issues that the tribes and others are bringing forward, but also make sure that while we also are talking about climate change and the impacts and our need to move away from fossil fuel, that we cannot point the finger every time at these dams and say, ‘Those have got to go, too.’ All of a sudden, we don’t have any tools left in our toolbox.”

He added, “That doesn’t mean that we can’t be better and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be looking at every alternative and be really honest about impacts that the hydroelectric facilities are having, whether that’s the natural environment, salmon runs, etc.”

Web of life

The Salish Sea is an island-dotted body of water bordered by mainland British Columbia to the north, Vancouver Island to the west, and Washington state to the south and east. The Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south and Georgia Strait to the north lead to the Pacific Ocean.

Numerous rivers and streams flow into the Salish Sea from the United States and Canada. Many originate at mountain glaciers and carry nutrients to the sea, deposit sediments on shorelines, and create riffles for salmon spawning.

The rivers support an intricate web of life. The Salish Sea’s resident orca pods feed on fat, nutrient-rich Chinook salmon that originate there, and salmon are central to the diets and cultures of the Salish Sea’s Indigenous peoples. Salmon that return to natal streams to spawn and die feed bears, eagles, wolves and other wildlife.

Salmon carcasses put nutrients into the soil, feeding cedars that provided Coast Salish peoples with materials for clothing; canoe and home construction; and ceremonial and utilitarian items.

As Seattle City Light states that removing one dam would affect the whole system, so say advocates about the salmon habitat: removing one healthy element can affect the whole ecosystem. That’s a comparison that seems to be backed by facts.

Seventeen of the rivers monitored since 1975 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown significant decreasing summer flows, the agency reported. Deforestation and decreased flows have resulted in warmer river temperatures.

Five refineries in the Salish Sea produce and ship gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, asphalt and other petroleum products to domestic and foreign markets. The Duwamish River, gateway to shipping for major industries that line the waterway, is a Superfund cleanup site.

According to the University of Washington, more than 25 percent of Salish Sea shoreline on the U.S. side has been armored to protect public and private property, in the process disrupting the natural process of erosion “which supplies much of the sand and gravel that forms and maintains our beaches and creates habitat for herring, surf smelt, salmon, and many other species.”

All of the change has taken its toll. The total number of marine species considered to be at risk in the Salish Sea doubled from 2002 to 2015, the EPA reported. Seventeen populations of salmon and steelhead in Washington are listed as "threatened" or "endangered" under the federal Endangered Species Act. The resident orca population, believed to have been more than 200 prior to the 20th century, was 74 in October.

Natural restoration

Removal of two dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula shows the power of nature to heal itself. Elwha Klallam elders recounted parents and grandparents’ stories of massive salmon that returned to the river to spawn; of relatives who lived well past 100, their health bolstered by diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and shellfish.

The dams changed all of that. The resulting reservoirs inundated sacred sites. River sediments piled up behind the dams to the height of a five-story building. The dams had no fish passage infrastructure; the day the demolition began on the Elwha Dam, salmon were visible in a pool at the dam’s base, unable to get upstream to their own ancestral spawning grounds.

The Elwha and Glines dams were removed from 2011-2014 in what was then the world’s largest dam-removal project. Over the next five years, water carrying newly freed rocks, sand and silt reshaped more than 13 miles of river and built a larger delta into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“For the first time in more than a century, salmon have reached stretches of the Elwha River upstream,” the U.S. Geological Survey reported. “In September 2016, USGS scientists doing topographic surveys found carcasses of Chinook salmon that died after migrating from the ocean to above the upper dam site, completing their natural life cycle.

“Now, fish are migrating into the upper watershed,” according to USGS, “a huge success for the Elwha River Restoration Project.”

TIMELINE

1855: Ancestors of the Sauk-Suiattle, Swinomish and Upper Skagit sign the Treaty of Point Elliott, ceding a large swath of western Washington to the United States. The ancestors reserve land for themselves and their descendants, and reserve the right to harvest resources – including fish – within their usual and accustomed territories.

1910: The Seattle City Council forms Seattle City Light to serve the electricity needs of a city that has grown from 40,000 residents in 1886, when the city’s first lighting system went online, to 237,000.

1914: Seattle City Light builds its first hydroelectric project – a dam and powerhouse on the Cedar River. It’s reportedly the first municipally owned hydroelectric project in the United States.

1924: Seattle City Light completes construction of Gorge Dam, its first hydroelectric project on the Skagit River. President Calvin Coolidge presses a button in the White House to start the first generator.

1930: Seattle City Light completes construction of Diablo Dam, its second hydroelectric project on the Skagit River.

1949: Seattle City Light completes construction of Ross Dam, its third hydroelectric project on the Skagit River.

1964: Seattle City Light completes construction of a dam and powerhouse on the Tolt River.

1967: Seattle City Light completes construction of a dam and powerhouse on the Pend Oreille River. Seattle City Light estimates its hydroelectric projects have a combined capacity of almost 2,000 megawatts. The reservoirs created by the dams are sources of drinking water and recreation for surrounding communities.

2020: Three Indigenous nations, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, Skagit County Board of County Commissioners, and conservation groups write letters to FERC, calling for a fish passage study to be conducted as part of the relicensing process.

2021: Sauk-Suiattle Tribe files a lawsuit on June 30 against the City of Seattle. The Upper Skagit Tribe buys a billboard message in early July in downtown Seattle calling for a study of the viability of removing Gorge Dam; the billboard features a photo of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dead salmon in low water below the dam. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules on July 16 that an analysis of Gorge Dam’s removal is not required as part of the relicensing process.

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