Proposed Snoqualmie River dam project halted
A proposed dam on the North Fork Snoqualmie River has been formally halted. Concerns over the energy facility’s effects on Snoqualmie drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational kayaking and tribal cultural sites plagued the project during the five-year process.
Black Canyon Hydro LLC, a subsidiary of Tollhouse Energy Company, formally withdrew its application Oct. 13 for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license to build and operate a hydroelectric facility in the Black Canyon area, also known as Ernie’s Canyon.
The proposed hydroelectric plant had a 25-megawatt generation capacity that could have provided clean, renewable energy to approximately 8,700 homes, according Black Canyon Hydro LLC figures. It would have also taken about 90 percent of the water out of the river for a 2.6-mile stretch, starting about 5 river miles up the North Fork and ending near the Ernie’s Grove neighborhood of North Bend, according to Snoqualmie Watershed Forum officials.
River water would be channeled into a 400-foot vertical tunnel drilled into the ground, turning turbines on the way down. A large tunnel at the bottom of the drop would deposit the water back downstream after about 2.5 miles.
Many obstacles impeded the permitting process from the start. One of the biggest was that the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an industry group, designated the North Fork as a protected area where hydro facilities should not be built.
“In the ’80s, they said you should not put hydro here,” Snoqualmie Watershed Forum Coordinator Janne Kaje said. “There are documents that say, ‘No, this is not where you build a hydro project.’ ”
Thom Fischer, president of Tollhouse Energy Company, said the “protected stream” designation is unjustified. He said that there are no endangered species of fish in the Black Canyon stretch, and that there is very little trout spawning and rearing habitat in the proposed stretch of Black Canyon.
“The good habitat is miles above our diversion structure,” Fischer said. “They can’t today explain why (the protected-stream designation) is there. There hasn’t been a process for taking it out of designation.”
Under the proposed plan for a “run-of-the-river” dam, diversion of the river wouldn’t begin until it was running at least 100 cubic feet per second, three times the low-flow level.
Kaje said that several proposals for hydro facilities in the 1980s were rejected with a common theme: protecting the unusually large trout living in the Black Canyon reach of the river.
“If you take a common-sense view, proposing to take 90 percent of the water out of a river” would harm fish habitat, Kaje said.
There is not a lot of good spawning habitat in the Black Canyon stretch, Kaje said, but it seems to be an area where trout do very well and often grow larger than average.
“It’s an important part of the gene pool that we don’t want to lose,” Kaje said. “Certain habitat types support that. We need to give that very special consideration.”
There were also major concerns raised by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife about the effects on nesting areas of certain bird species, Kaje said.
The City of Snoqualmie expressed concerns to FERC regarding the project’s effects on Canyon Spring, a source of high-quality drinking water for the city. Canyon Spring provides water that requires only chlorination for treatment, and is transported to the city by gravity alone.
Black Canyon Hydro conducted numerous rounds of groundwater studies in an effort to predict the effects of the project on the spring. Correspondence between the city’s contracted consulting engineers, Gray & Osborne, and FERC indicated the proposed vertical tunnel would have been drilled through 30-50 feet of earth saturated with the Canyon Springs aquifer.
By February 2016, after years of tests, the city still contended that “the potential degradation or impairment of Canyon Springs, in either quantity or quality, is an unacceptable risk for the City,” according to a letter to FERC.
“We never did resolve that with (the city),” Fischer said. “Even if we had that solved,” it wouldn’t make the project go forward.
American Whitewater, a nonprofit with the mission of conserving and restoring America’s whitewater resources, strongly opposed the dam project. The river flows necessary to boat down Black Canyon would have been largely eliminated by the river diversion.
Fischer said Black Canyon Hydro could have worked with whitewater boaters to provide useable flows on certain days of the year.
“I don’t think that hydro power and river rafting need to be exclusive,” Fischer said. “They can work well together.”
Custom flows are a very different thing than having a natural, wild river that provides those flows on its own, Kaje said. Black Canyon is known as a destination for Class 5-plus whitewater. There are not many sites like that close to large metropolitan areas like Seattle, Kaje said.
The Snoqualmie and Tulalip tribes were both involved in the meetings surrounding the project and raised cultural issues about the proposal.
Despite opposition from multiple organizations and government bodies, Black Canyon Hydro’s permit application was not denied. FERC does not need permission from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council or King County to issue permits. Rather, Black Canyon Hydro pulled its application because the project had become unprofitable.
“King County professes they want to be renewable, but they put rules and regulations that prohibit it,” Fischer said of the opposition to Black Canyon Hydro energy.
All of the hurdles were known when Black Canyon Hydro proposed the facility, Kaje said.
There are currently two hydroelectric projects approved for building on Hancock Creek and Calligan Creek, which empty in the Snoqualmie River, said Perry Falcone, project coordinator for Snoqualmie Watershed Forum.
“Smaller creek dams have less impact than dams crossing a significant river,” Falcone said.
Seven licensed hydro facilities currently operate in the Snoqualmie Basin, including the Black Creek hydro plant run by Fischer and Tollhouse Energy. King County currently has more licensed facilities than any other county in the state.