A proposed hydropower project has landed a Northwest waterway on an environmental group’s list of the top 10 Most Endangered Rivers of 2012.
The south fork of the Skykomish River drains the west slope of the Washington Cascades in Snohomish County. American Rivers named it the 7th most endangered river. The Potomac, which runs through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., topped the list for its pollution.
Amy Kober, a spokeswoman for the group, said the proposed dam near Sunset Falls, which her group opposes, qualified the Skykomish River for the top 10 list.
Criteria to make the top 10 list include threats to a river’s value to people and wildlife and whether there is an upcoming decision point that gives people a chance to help determine its future.
“It’s not a list of the worst rivers or the most polluted rivers, but a list of rivers that are at a crossroads,” Kober said.
View Sunset Falls in a larger map
The Skykomish is the only Northwest River on the list for 2012. In past years, the list has included Washington’s Elwha and White Salmon rivers, Oregon’s Willamette and Chetco rivers, and the Snake River, which runs along the border of Oregon and Idaho and flows through southeastern Washington before reaching the Columbia.
American Rivers has been campaigning for months to stop construction of the hydropower project at the Skykomish River’s Sunset Falls. It would divert water above the falls, flow through electricity-generating turbines, and then return to the stream. It would generate energy for about 3 percent of the PUD’s customers. The utility says it chose the site in part because it will not interfere with salmon migration or recreation on the Skykomish.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District in March received a preliminary permit from federal energy regulators for a preliminary site investigation. It’s now up to the district’s elected commissioners to determine when and whether to proceed.
Local opposition has mounted because of the impact lower water flows will have on the scenic value of the falls. Residents of a gated community of riverfront property owners have been especially vocal in their opposition. American Rivers has opposed the development, in part because the Skykomish is one of the few remaining rivers in Washington free of dams or hydropower development. It’s listed with the State Scenic Rivers System.
Steve Klein, the Snohomish County PUD’s general manager, took exception to American Rivers’ labeling of the Skykomish River as endangered.
“It’s probably not fair to describe studying something as endangering it,” he said.
Klein said his utility will spend three years studying the possibility of hydropower on the south fork of the Skykomish. He said the utility is committed to continuing to produce all its electricity without burning fossil fuels, such as coal. To meet that standard as population and energy demands rise, the utility is looking at a number of options for renewable energy, including solar, tidal, and hydro, Klein said.
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