Save the Skykomish

By now somewhere along the way, somewhere in my social media stream over the past two years you may have noticed the word Skykomish.   This post is about a beautiful bend in a wild powerful river, nestled beneath the watchful eye of Mt. Index, and a battle spanning decades to protect it.

Before we get to the exciting stuff, lets back up a moment and for the rest of my readers, start with a bit of a history lesson.

The name “Skykomish” comes from the Northern Lushootseed word /sq’íxʷəbš/, meaning “upriver people”, from/q’íxʷ/, “upstream”.  The Skykomish River’s main stem is 29 miles (47 km) long. The length including its headwater tributaries, South Fork Skykomish and Tye River, is 62.4 miles (100 km). The Skykomish’s drainage basin is 834 square miles (2,160 km2) in area.

1264123_10153312503110438_1796467395_oIf you grew up here in Washington State (or have lived here for any length of time), chances are you have visited this iconic wild river at some point.   If you haven’t experienced her breathtaking beauty, fall is the perfect time… Clear water, scarlet leafed trees, with trout, steelhead, whitefish and salmon scurrying about their business beneath the mirrored surface.

In preparation for my visit to the Sky Valley I wanted to learn a bit about the history of the river.  I was very surprised to find out that due to a train depot in Skykomish and engine fuel filling practices of yesteryear, the waterway had been poisoned.   Oil was reported in the river as far back as the 1920′s.  Heavy contamination was noted in the late 80′s by the authorities and subsequent clean up by BNSF working hand in hand with EPA began.  Read more here.

Preamble to the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA)

“Each person has a fundamental and inalienable right to a healthful environment, and each person has a responsibility to preserve and enhance that right. The beneficial stewardship of the land, air, and waters of the state is a solemn obligation of the present generation for the benefit of future generations.”

Basically, they moved the town (and put it back again) to clean up the river.  That’s dedication!

1272782_10153312500340438_1968725854_oLast year, I met up with Russ Rickets from RiverSnorkeling and the crew from Wild Steelhead Coalition.   It was a basic introduction to river snorkeling and the Skykomish.   I crawled on my belly in mere inches of water to film Pink salmon spawning (see the video here in “Nature Recovers“) and found a deep pool filled with what looked to be a million million more Pink Salmon with the occasional big fat chinook blasting about.  It was awe inspiring and even more important hope inspiring.

There were a few items that could have used ‘fixing’ though, my thermal protection was multiple layers of neoprene, basically what ever i could find that would add up to close to 7mm.  Not ideal.  The weight pack I was trying to be fancy-pants and wear was also not quite ideal (who knew rocks are not that heavy compared to lead – ok, maybe I did, but i was trying out a new system that i planned to use in the mountain lakes).  I was shooting with my ‘old’ camera housing which basically had zero controls so everything i shot was in auto, this caused a fair bit of frustration when trying to shoot the massive number of salmon, there were so many that the normally bright river bottom was black with fish.  Manual settings would have been helpful.  None of this stopped me from having a great time, just things I’d like to improve on.

So this year, when Russ pinged me and said “the 20th, I know its a week day but it will be awesome!”,  I said “I’m IN!” without hesitation.

skyriverKnowing there was cold water snorkeling to be had in my future, one of the first things I did this spring was purchase a ‘real’ wetsuit, 8-7mm with hood attached, sort of self donning, semi-dry.  I ended up with an Aqualung SolaFX much thanks to Ken at Underwater Sports for giving me Diver Fair prices a couple weeks before Divers Fair.   I didn’t pick it for any real reason other than it fit me well (the cut really is a nicely done women’s cut) has hood attached, and was ballpark right price.

Additionally in the ensuing year, I’d been able to upgrade my housing to the appropriate camera specific enclosure which meant that i’d have full control of the Canon 5Dmk2 inside the Subal housing.  (side note:  in the somewhat entertaining conditions that rivers provide, shallow water, fast moving bits, eddys, waterfalls, etc… I didn’t end up shooting very much of my underwater footage in manual, this wasn’t the belly deep water of last year, this was variable current and at some points very powerful multifaceted water).

The stretch of river I’d been invited to visit is very special.  It is all private and pretty much off limits to the public unless you know someone.   It used to be one of the premier whitewater kayaking destinations, but got a bit too popular and there was a confrontation between the WDFW Catch and Haul facility and the Kayakers (not clear if it was organized group or private party) but needless to say the end result is the same, some of the most beautiful river i’ve ever seen is off limits – a clear example of “for the love of DOG people, don’t f*ck it up for all of us just to make a point”.

Map for IcycleWe were invited to visit the proposed intake site for a power plant, Canyon Falls (and the Lagoon) and the Base of Sunset Falls.

Did you catch that?  A hydro-electric facility on the South Fork of the Skykomish?  Whaaaa????

The purpose of our visit was to document the epic beauty of the area and hopefully capture it on film so that we might make a documentary that inspires the general public and lawmakers alike to help us PRESERVE this wild river as opposed to dewater and permanently, irreversibly change its course.

The plan to leech power off the Skykomish has been ongoing for decades.  Each time the plans fail, thanks to the hard work of opponents who want to preserve the Skykomish, the Utility Departments go back to the drawing board for a supposedly less invasive plan (but still maximum impact).  Its almost like they come up with one really bad idea after another so that when the come up with the next one they think it will be accepted because its a ‘lesser evil’.

When I became aware of their agenda, the threat was from a 7′ inflatable weir that was going to direct flow into an intake to the 2200 foot headrace tunnel that would transport water (bypassing the falls) into the power generation plant.   Think massive disruption to a quaint, quiet community, construction of large roads, and much blasting through bedrock and tunneling though quicksand.   Ya, brilliant plan.   Brilliant plan as a smokescreen that is.

The Sunset falls project would provide power to < 3% of SnoPUD’s customers.

As one can imagine public outcry was immediate and loud.   Vehement enough for SnoPUD to come up with a new plan that foregoes the weir but now plans to capture the water in one of the upstream deep water pools, transport it through a 22-24′ wide, 2000′ long tunnel (that they will have to drill partially through bedrock) and divert massive amounts of water from Canyon and Sunset falls.   As one can imagine, this new plan sounds a lot better on the surface…  But once you dive in, you realize that it too is some kind of smokescreen.   The new plan calls for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new studies to be done, on everything from the copper content of the bedrock that will be blasted, to the minimum flow velocities for juvenile salmon.   Any decision on the fate of the river is easily 5 years off.    How much money are we going to pad pockets with again and again and again, on a project that shouldn’t even be happening in the first place?

Think about it, SnoPUD could put all that money into upgrading power plants that are ALREADY IN PLACE, get renewable energy credit, and get MORE power for extraordinarily lower cost, at minimal damage to the environment.   There are a whole host of alternative investments that could be made.

per Eric Teegarden

There are better ways to invest our ratepayer dollars in local infrastructure. Our local grid is in dire need of upgrades to improve power distribution and create a smarter network. The goal ought to be to create a more resilient, efficient, and stable power grid.

Greater investment in distributed renewable energy would also accomplish this. Snohomish PUD already has a template for this in place with the award-winning Solar Express Program. It is only a matter of scale: for $170 million, PUD could match the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar installations with a 30 percent grant for up to 35,000 homes. This would provide power for up to 18,000 homes, based on my calculations — comparable to PUD’s claim that the Sunset Falls dam would meet power needs for 10,275 homes. Best of all, 100 percent of the distributed power generated would count toward Washington state Renewable Energy Credits (allowing the PUD to receive four times the value for power generation as conventional power generation). This is home-grown power that is a win-win for us and our environment. In addition, it would create hundreds of local jobs.

Or better still, put the money into researching large capacity smart storage kits (check out the link, its a local company even), so that we can capture energy that is produced 24 hours a day and store it,  and feed it to the grid during peak energy consumption.   I read somewhere that our existing hydroelectric power plants create enough energy to power the whole state multiple times over if we were just able to store the energy.   We would have a large volume of surplus…. oh wait.. that would mean lower energy costs and <scratches head> i’m gonna hazard a guess that none of the PUD would be pleased by that.   No wonder there isn’t much support for storage and upgrades.

Why then does SnoPUD insist on pushing forward on the Sunset Falls project?   Your guess is as good as mine, it makes zero sense, the small amount of power produced will be incredibly expensive in comparison to just buying from the grid.   I suspect it has something to do with money…. (doesn’t it always?)

So I say to all of you (all three of you that made it to this point in my way too long blog post) if this idea strikes you as odd, if you are now curious about the beauty of the Skykomish,  the time is right to stand up to the Utility Departments (they are looking at putting power plants on other lesser known, but no less beautiful waterways) and help preserve the wild, beautiful places we still have, so that future generations can enjoy them as we do now.   MILLIONS of dollars have just been spent removing dams and power plants from the Elwha.   In light of that, and the massive cost of the current work to restor the Duwamish River can’t we agree that preservation is the best and least expensive route?

more reading:

Save the Sky web page dedicated to preservation of this beautiful wild place.


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