May 3rd, 2018

Sunset Falls Project terminated: The Skykomish River still runs wild!

We are celebrating a big win for the Skykomish River as the Sunset Falls Project was terminated and no longer threatens the river from running free.

Sunset Falls Project terminated: The Skykomish River still runs wild! - image
Sunset Falls, WA - South Fork of the Skykomish. Photo: Northwest waterfall survey

On my way to the river I roll down my window just to hear the roar of the water at Sunset Falls. Standing at the bottom with the mist from the falls still hitting my face from 20 feet back gives me such a respect for the power of water and keeping rivers wild. Once you experience the river firsthand you will understand why there is more than enough reason the Forest Service recommended the river to be designated as Wild and Scenic.

The Skykomish River is truly a special place; for the community, the river is a staple for the wildlife, the recreation and raw beauty. The Skykomish is one of my favorite rivers because the rapids are “full-on”, the scenery is majestic with Mount Index in the backdrop, and the water is so clear you can look down from your boat and see huge steelhead swimming underneath the surface.

Sunset Falls Project terminated: The Skykomish River still runs wild! - image
Mount Index watching over rafters. Photo: Lance Reif - Wildwater River Guides

To give a little history on the Skykomish, in 2008 the Snohomish County PUD (public utility district) developed a list of 140 new potential Hydro-power sites in four regions of Washington State. The list was narrowed to 40 sites then later to a dozen.2 In 2009 the PUD conducted a more in depth study to identify viable Hydro-power resourcing from the South Fork of the Skykomish River. Since then, American Whitewater has been actively involved in the discussion about the Sunset Falls Project and other potential hydro-power sites. “American Whitewater was invited to provide input on these sites along with partners in the conservation community.”1

The Sunset Falls Project was proposed on a segment of river corridor that has multiple state and federal protections already established. “The South Fork Skykomish is a State Scenic Waterway, the Forest Service has recommended it for Wild and Scenic designation, the reach is protected from hydropower development by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and instream flows are protected by the State of Washington.”1

Despite public opposition and previously established protections the PUD continued to pursue the project and filed for the permits in December 2011 to develop the site.“The project initially envisioned an inflatable weir that would have blocked and diverted water through turbines at the falls. The project was changed in 2014, eliminating the weir and replacing it with an underground tunnel that would have diverted much of the water around the lowest falls, through hydropower turbines and back into the Skykomish River channel.”3

Sunset Falls Project terminated: The Skykomish River still runs wild! - image
Deanna guiding through Boulder Drop - Photo: Lance Reif - Wildwater River Guides

American Whitewater and other conservation groups including; Alpine Lakes Protection Society, American Rivers, North Cascades Conservation Council, Sierra Club – Washington State Chapter, The Mountaineers, and Washington Wild, came together in June 2011 to oppose the Sunset Falls Project.

In 2013 the groups stated in a motion to intervene: “Conservation Groups are opposed to the Project due to the impacts that would result from damming and dewatering one of the region’s most treasured free-­‐flowing rivers...The key to recognizing the promise of increased hydropower generation is choosing the right sites. The South Fork Skykomish River is simply an inappropriate river to consider for new hydropower generation. The proposed Project is contrary to local, state and federal laws, policies, and comprehensive plans. The proposed Project site is on a reach of the river that has been recommended to Congress by the USDA Forest Service as a Wild and Scenic River, is identified as a Protected Area from hydropower development by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and recognized in state statute as a State Scenic Waterway.”4

Earlier in April, the PUD came to a settlement about ceasing the Sunset Falls Project. According to American Whitewater, “While we committed to the settlement process in good faith, we are pleased with the decision to emphasize cost-effective conservation and alternative renewable energy resources as alternatives to the development of a hydropower project at Sunset Falls.”1

Personally having commercially guided and played on the Skykomish River, I could not be more happy with the outcome of the Sunset Falls Project and I am thankful for the hours spent of those involved in protecting it. After commercially guiding Class IV and V rivers across the Country, in my 9 years on whitewater I have never experienced a river quite like the Sky, it truly is an amazing place to be. Whether you decide to run boulder drop (optional class V rapid) or not, even looking at the rapid humbles you to the natural forces of water. With such big and powerful features, there is no fighting the current but instead connecting and moving with it, as Burt Reynolds once said “you don’t beat this river”.

Sunset Falls Project terminated: The Skykomish River still runs wild! - image
Crews scout Boulder Drop (Class V) Rapid. Photo: Lance Reif - Wildwater River Guides

For now the Skykomish River will remain wild under the Washington State Scenic River and other protections already in place, stating that the protection and preservation of the Skykomish (including Sunset Falls), “shall be preserved in as natural a condition as practical.”4 The Project is in terminated for the time being, “However, if higher growth occurs over the longer term, 10 years or beyond, the PUD could seek out additional energy resources in the mid-2020s time period.” - said PUD Commission President Kathy Vaughn.3

Sunset Falls Project terminated: The Skykomish River still runs wild! - image
Photo: Lance Reif - Wildwater River Guides

This year we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, and we are hopeful that the Skykomish River will soon enter into the protections of the National Wild and Scenic Act, as recommended by the Forest Service and supported by the community and conservation groups. I am dedicated to protecting the places I love and am in full support of the groups and people advocating for rivers to stay wild and undeveloped for future generations.

We want to thank American Whitewater for continuing to support the community and environment when conducting studies and advocating about these rivers and areas that mean the most to us. I could not imagine driving by a trickle that used to be Sunset Falls or standing near the pool below, knowing all of its power is contained underground. I am grateful to experience the sheer beauty of the Skykomish River for years to come, in its natural form -- wild and free flowing!

If you want to learn more about the river trips we offer or experience it for yourself, please call the number or click the link listed below to reserve your next adventure on the Skykomish River.

Reservations: 509.470.8558 or Online

Author: Deanna Wall - Guide at Wildwater River Guides

References:

  1. American Whitewater article by Thomas O’Keefe on April 13, 2018
  2. Press release by Snohomish County Public Utility District on April 11, 2018
  3. Harold.net article Editorial: How a lightbulb saved Sunset Falls April 12, 2018
  4. Sunset Falls Hydroelectric Project Preliminary Permit, Project No. 14295 - Motion to Intervene
  5. Electronic Filing - Study Request July 19, 2013
  6. The Skykomish - A case in why protection as a Wild and Scenic river matters - Seattle Times Sept. 28, 2008

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