Seattle City Light creates multimillion-dollar fund to support fish on the Skagit

Fund brings substantial new resources to protect, conserve, and restore the fisheries resources and aquatic habitat of the Skagit River

With a unanimous vote of the City Council on Monday, Seattle created a new fund to support endangered fish species in the Skagit River watershed, including bull trout and Chinook salmon. As Seattle City Light works with Tribes, state and federal agencies in pursuit of a new federal license to operate the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, the Skagit Habitat Enhancement Program will fund fish and aquatic habitat projects.  

The fund, proposed by City Light in April 2021, will start with $2.5 million, to which $500,000 will be added every year until the new license is in place. City Light will administer the fund with input from the Upper Skagit, Swinomish, and Sauk-Suiattle Tribes, and federal and state resource agencies. This fund augments ongoing mitigation projects as discussion continues toward new federal licensing requirements. 

“In April, we committed to the Tribes and other partners that we would dedicate funds, outside of the current and future license and settlement agreements, to protect the fish species in the Skagit River,” said Seattle City Light General Manager and CEO Debra Smith. “Council’s action allows us to make good on that promise. We are looking forward to working with the Tribes, federal and state resource agencies to make lasting improvements to the watershed.” 

The current Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license to operate the Skagit Project was issued to Seattle City Light in 1995. As part of that license, City Light and partners entered into the Fisheries Settlement Agreement, which has guided City Light funding of multiple projects in the Skagit River watershed, including side channel habitat restoration, research into salmon habitats and patterns of fish-use, and acquisition of thousands of acres of land to protect important habitat. That funding source was designed to expire by 2025; this new fund will be automatically replenished every year. 

“Climate change has put extraordinary stress on our region’s natural ecosystems, with devastating impact on fish habitats,” said Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “These impacts are being felt by Tribes most of all. We are grateful to the Upper Skagit, Swinomish, and Sauk-Suiattle Tribes for working with us to develop a long-lasting investment in the Skagit River’s endangered species.” 

Under the current license settlement agreement, City Light has worked with Tribes and state and federal regulatory agencies to enhance the watershed and protect salmon runs by regulating flows in the river to optimize conditions for salmon. At the time of the last license, Chinook, steelhead and bull trout were not listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and the license partners, including Tribes, agreed that downstream measures would be more beneficial to fish populations than upstream measures.  

But with more species recognized as threatened, and with the continued changing conditions in the watershed, City Light is working with with Tribes and other agencies to evaluate what new measures need to be taken. Fish passage studies are part of a comprehensive set of more than 30 studies that will clarify the impacts on cultural resources, wildlife, habitat, recreation, and more. The City will work with license partners to review the research findings and develop mitigation strategies as part of the next FERC license. 

Background on the Skagit Hydropower Project 

The Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, which was begun more than 100 years ago, is a series of three dams that provide about 20% of City Light’s power. City Light is in the process of relicensing the project, as the current license expires in 2025. 

License renewal is an opportunity to examine the safety, cost, environmental, and cultural impacts of the continued operation of the project. For the next several years, City Light will be collaborating with partners on a new license that will mandate projects essential to protecting the environment and the culture of the watershed. 

Renewing our federal operating license will allow City Light’s Skagit Project to continue producing clean, carbon-free energy while also safeguarding the cultural and natural resources in the area. City Light has also committed to regularly assessing the need for the dams, so that as new technologies emerge or environmental conditions change, we can be ready to change our approach as well. Read more about the assessment on Powerlines blog: https://powerlines.seattle.gov/2021/08/10/skagit-river-hydro-project-relicensing-update/