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Talk of new dam on Skykomish above falls resisted

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By Bill Sheets
Herald Writer
Published:
INDEX -- Just as the Snohomish County PUD has finished building its first mini-dam, it's encountering resistance to the possibility of another.
Less than three weeks ago, the utility flipped the switch to allow power to flow from its new $29 million, mini-dam project on Youngs Creek south of Sultan. Now, the Public Utility District has applied for federal permits to study building a mini-dam and powerhouse above Sunset Falls on the south fork of the Skykomish River near Index. About 300 to 400 people live in a neighborhood along the scenic section of the Skykomish where the project would be built, resident Jeff Smith said. He and others are fighting even the mere chance of it.
"I think it will have an enormous impact on this river and this ecosystem," said Smith, who lives on the river about 50 yards from where the PUD says the dam could go in.
Officials with the PUD stress that they haven't decided to build a dam near Sunset Falls.
"People need to really understand that this is the study phase," PUD general manager Steve Klein said. "We're going to look at this project, and it's appropriate that people raise concerns and we hear them."
The project would cost between $110 million and $170 million, according to the PUD's preliminary estimates. It would generate enough power for nearly 10,000 homes. The recently completed Youngs Creek is expected to generate power for an average of about 2,000 homes.
The battle cry for people who live near Sunset Falls, Smith said, is "don't kill a river for a kilowatt."
More than 50 people attended each of two recent community meetings the PUD held regarding the project. Concerns include flooding above the dam and reduced water flow below it; glare from lights; noise and traffic during construction, and effect on the scenery.
The project's location above the falls means it would not affect spawning salmon, PUD officials say. The Youngs Creek powerhouse, similarly, is located 1 miles above a steep waterfall.
In addition to the Sunset Falls project, the PUD already has received federal permission to study the construction of mini-dams on Hancock and Calligan creeks in the I-90 corridor in King County.
The utility currently buys about 92 percent of its electricity from the Bonneville Power Administration and hopes to reduce that percentage to diversify its power sources. The PUD also is investigating other sources such as tidal and geothermal power, and encouraging use of solar power through incentive programs.
Youngs Creek was the first new hydroelectric dam to be built in the state in about 20 years.
Environmentalists aren't as concerned about the King County projects as they are about Sunset Falls, said Tom O'Keefe of Seattle, Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater, a national advocacy group for leaving rivers in their natural state.
Those projects are more similar to Youngs Creek because they're on tributaries rather than on the main stem of a river and are not located near residential communities. The Youngs Creek project drew little opposition.
Sunset Falls, O'Keefe said, "rises to a level where I expect where we'll take a much more active role."
The PUD has roughed out where the different parts of the project would be built and what they would look like.
A small inflatable weir about a mile above Sunset Falls would serve as the dam itself. It could be deflated to lie flat on the river bottom during peak flows to prevent flooding, Moore said.
As with Youngs Creek, water would flow into an intake at the dam and be routed through a large pipeline downstream to a powerhouse near Sunset Falls.
Smith said this pipeline would go through part of his property, according to a preliminary drawing.
The elevation drop would help generate the force for the water to spin turbines to create the power. Afterward, the water would be redirected back into the stream below the falls.
"Sunset Falls would pretty much be silenced," Smith said. "You'd have to drain most of the water out of the river to make this feasible."
This aspect of the project is still being studied, PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said. If the project is built, enough water would be left in the river to preserve habitat and aesthetics, he said.
Environmental groups say the PUD should be investigating conversion of existing dams, which now are used only as reservoirs, into hydropower projects rather than creating new ones.
Of the more than 1,100 dams in the state, 250 do not generate power, said Rich Bowers of the Hydropower Reform Coalition, based in Bellingham.
The PUD studied 140 sites including several existing dams and found they did not provide the elevation drop needed to provide enough force or pressure to run a turbine, Neroutsos said. Various factors narrowed their list down to 10 or 12 feasible locations including Sunset Falls.
Brook Stanford, 70, a retired reporter for Seattle's KOMO-TV, lives near Canyon Falls, between Sunset Falls and where the dam could be built. He's afraid the river's beauty would be diminished.
"When (the water) tumbles through solid granite and over Canyon Falls, the vision it creates is beyond description," he said. "It is a visual and spiritual experience that you must see to appreciate. Will this project alter the falls permanently, change the river permanently?"
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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