Skagit Hydro Project Relicensing

The Skagit River is the third largest river in the lower 48 States of the U.S. draining into the Pacific Ocean, second only to the Colorado and Columbia. And today, despite all human modifications to it and its tributaries (agriculture, development, diking, dredging, channeling, logging, mining and hydropower projects) the Skagit continues to host runs of all 5 anadromous salmonid species, a key indicator of its relative health.

The greatest permanent impact to the Skagit watershed has been hydropower development in the upper reaches located in the North Cascades. Trying to halt further hydro development and mitigate some of its impacts has been a central mission of N3C almost since it was formed. Mitigation of hydro projects is accomplished through the Federal licensing process.

Seattle City Light (SCL) operates the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, consisting of 3 dams in the midst of Washington’s North Cascades National Park (NOCA) and Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which the hydro project predates. It is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which has oversight over all hydroelectric projects in the United States.

The next cycle of FERC relicensing of the Skagit Project is underway now, and NCCC is a part of it!

This is a critical time to be taking action because the next FERC license will last for 30-50 years. Now is the time to make a difference for the future and ask important questions like could other sources of power, along with greater efficiency, satisfy Seattle’s power demands instead? And what, if anything, can be done about the damage the hydro projects have already done?

SCL has been negotiating via a Steering Committee and Resource Workgroups that will guide the settlement toward the new license. For a more in-depth review of what has been happening with the current FERC relicensing process, we encourage you to read the updates in recent issues of The Wild Cascades journal.

Timeline of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project

For a more in-depth understanding of the long history of this issue, here is a timeline we compiled from a variety of sources. It shows Seattle City Light’s 100+ years of hydropower actions in the Skagit River and N3C’s 60+ years of conservation resistance and activism there, through 1991 when the current FERC license was issued with a negotiated mitigation package. 

It’s an epic story of how an industrial juggernaut was stopped and some of its damage reduced and compensated for in the upper Skagit River valley.

  • 1917 SCL receives permit from US Dept. of Agriculture (US Forest Service) to build Skagit dams.

  • 1918 Construction of low Gorge Dam starts.

  • 1919 Newhalem dam construction starts.

    City Light begins to pursue a policy of continuous project expansion and enlargement. Three dams will be built on the Skagit from 1919-1952 to supply Seattle with electric power, and more were proposed. Expansion continued, under the direction of the charismatic superintendent of City Light, J.D. Ross, for whom Ross Dam will be named.

  • 1921 Newhalem dam produces power.

  • 1924 Gorge construction completed and power produced.

  • 1927 Federal Power Commission (FPC, the predecessor to FERC) issues license for Diablo Dam (Skagit Project #553). Work on Diablo Dam starts, at the time the world’s tallest dam.

  • Aerial photo looking southwest from the Hozomeen vicinity, ca. 1931. From the Patrick Goldsworthy collection

    1931 The pre-reservoir upper Skagit River valley was a “place no one knew” — it was dammed and flooded before it was seen by any but a few prospectors. This valley is now occupied by Ross Lake Reservoir. This rare aerial photo looks southwest from the Hozomeen vicinity, ca. 1931. Ross Dam construction started 6 years later. This vast ancient forest corridor was irreplaceable.

  • 1935 (and later) -Federal Power Act amendments give the Federal Dept. of Interior, including the National Park Service, power to mitigate adverse effects of hydroelectric projects.

  • 1936 Power first produced from Diablo Dam. At the time Diablo had the world’s largest operating hydroelectric generator.

  • 1937 Ross (originally named Ruby) Dam work starts.

  • 1942 International Joint Commission (IJC) between Canada and US approves Ross Dam project. Negotiations begin with Canada with goal of allowing flooding of upper Canadian Skagit by Ross Dam (see map above).

  • 1948 Reconstruction of original Gorge Dam starts.

  • 1952 Ross Dam produces power.  High Ross construction first proposed.

  • 1953 High Gorge Dam starts.

  • 1954 Negotiations with Canada over long-term flooding of Canadian Skagit areas – no agreement reached so annual negotiations required.

  • 1957 NCCC founded.

  • 1961 Gorge High Dam completed.

  • Ross Lake reservoir during draw-down, ca 1965. From the Joe and Margaret Miller collection

    1965 This photo shows the Ross Lake reservoir during draw-down, ca. 1965, showing results of converting ancient forest to hydropower production, and what would become of Big Beaver Valley if the High Ross dam was built.

  • 1967 Seattle City Light attempts to negotiate a compensation schedule with British Columbia over flooding of the upper Skagit but does not receive formal agreement. Formal consideration of raising Ross Dam voiced at NCNP Washington DC hearings/SCL testimony. N3C takes notice.

  • 1968 (August) N3C founders and board members Richard Brooks, Dave Beck, Harvey Manning and Patrick Goldsworthy hike the Big Beaver valley, see the potential impact of High Ross reservoir which would flood the lower valley’s ancient forest with its giant western red cedar groves and marshes, and resolve to start N3C’s formal opposition to High Ross. 

    “When the four of us went through the cedar forests and saw what was going to happen there, it was devastating. So we started an opposition… The original Ross Dam was a loss because none of us were around. We didn’t know about the upper Skagit. That’s a shame. It’s like Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. It’s a whole valley gone.”**

    Dr. Patrick Goldsworthy

    City Light was planning to not only build High Ross dam, but to build two more dams, one farther down the main stem Skagit (aka Copper Creek dam) and one on Thunder Creek, in about 1970.  This proposal would have resulted in the flooding of almost 5,000 acres of the Skagit Valley in B.C.

    At this time conservationists led by N3C had succeeded in protecting the surrounding wild lands as National Park and Recreation Area, and with the grassroots momentum built up in that campaign they redirected their efforts to halting the proposed new dams and preventing conversion of more of the scenic Skagit River valley to industrial-scale electrical production.

    Comparison of current and proposed enlarged “High Ross” reservoirs
  • 1968 (October) North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area established.

    However, by this time the dams and reservoirs had already permanently altered the watershed’s hydrology and removed a large amount of its ancient forest to make way for reservoirs

  • 1969 Run Out Skagit Spoilers (ROSS) founded. ROSS and Province of BC opposition increases. N3C’s Joe and Margaret Miller begin their survey of Big Beaver Creek’s ancient forests, documenting the ecology there in a pioneering study completed in 1971. Joe Miller writes a series of scathing critiques of SCL’s proposals between 1969 and 1979 in The Wild Cascades under the pen names “The Kerosene Kid” and “The Kaeopectate Kid.”

    N3C’s Margaret Miller measuring a giant western redcedar in Big Beaver Creek valley, ca. 1969.
    It measured 32ft. 10in. circumference. -Joe Miller photo
    SCL Skagit River Proposals maps by Patrick Goldsworthy, 1969
  • 1970 First Earth Day, April 22.

    Full page ad placed by N3C in Seattle P-I opposing High Ross based on the model of similar ads the Sierra Club used to stop hyro developments in Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park. It had coupons to mail to Seattle City Council. 6-2 vote of Seattle City Council authorizes SCL to file for amendment of original FPC license to allow construction of High Ross dam. National Park Service negotiates with SCL for loss of recreational facilities because of proposed new projects on the Skagit and its tributaries including High Ross. 

    N3C’s founder Patrick Goldsworthy wrote an impassioned plea in the Sierra Club’s journal, “The Nation Must Stop the Dams!”

  • 1971 N3C’s Joe and Margaret Miller compete their “Preliminary Ecological Survey of Big Beaver Valley,” based on field work begun in 1969. Big Beaver is a tributary of the Skagit with forests and wetlands that would have been inundated by rising waters behind High Ross dam.

  • 1973 SCL Draft Environmental Impact Statement released.

  • 1974 Public hearings – Administrative Law Judge hearings.

  • 1977 FPC approves license amendment to allow High Ross. Original FPC license runs out. Province of BC makes offer to SCL to sell replacement electrical generating capacity. SCL files application for new license for Skagit Project including High Ross.  “Indian tribes, environmental groups, and state and federal agencies, who participated in the High Ross battle, see relicensing as an opportunity to redress the unmitigated impacts of the Skagit Project.“*

  • 1978 SCL files revised application for new license. NCCC/ROSS and others file appeals in Washington, D.C. District Court of Appeals. SCL opens its Environmental Affairs Division (known today as SCL’s “Environment, Land and Licensing Business Unit“) to take the lead in negotiations for the new license. New EA Division favorable to conservationist’s initiatives for mitigation. Skagit River downstream of SCL Hydro Project added to Wild and Scenic Rivers, prohibiting additional dam construction.

    “Reddi Kilowatt,” icon of electrification, is depicted chopping down a large tree in this graphic from the No High Ross Dam campaign. High Ross would have inundated a rare ancient forest in Big Beaver Creek valley.
    -Courtesy NPS Archives
  • 1979 Agreement in concept on replacement power package with B.C.. Federal Power Commission (the future FERC) accepts SCL’s application for relicensing. SCL is criticized for not studying impacts on fisheries, and N3C and others intervene. Seattle City Council approves EIS for proposed Copper Creek dam that would flood the main stem Skagit River below the existing Gorge dam, destroying prime salmon spawning habitat and harming bald eagles that feed on those salmon. “Local residents distrust the Copper Creek plan since the dam would be built in a zone of active geologic faults.”*

  • 1980 Court of Appeals denies N3C and other’s appeal. N3C “declares victory” and leaves the legal arena when deadline for final appeal to the US Supreme Court expires. FERC permit for High Ross Dam becomes effective. Province of BC appeals the IJC 1942 decision.

  • 1981 Interim Flow Agreement with SCL, Federal Agencies, and tribes requires City Light to modify operations and study impacts on fisheries. The Nature Conservancy, which owns a 300-acre eagle sanctuary downstream from the Copper Creek dam site, calls for City Light to abandon the project. SCL shelves Copper Creek dam project.

  • 1982 International Joint Commission (IJC) rejects BC appeal but places 1-year moratorium on construction of High Ross. IJC establishes a Joint Consultative Group to facilitate negotiations in good faith among parties.

  • 1983 Agreement signed between Province of BC (BC Hydro) and SCL.

  • 1984 Formal ratification of High Ross Treaty by Canada and US.  BC sells surplus hydropower to SCL at a rate less than the cost of building High Ross, Big Beaver was saved and none of the proposed new projects were built. The treaty means that High Ross will not be built during agreement duration, until 2064. Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (SEEC) is established, and N3C Board Chairman Patrick Goldsworthy is appointed first member of U.S. delegation.

  • 1986 Leaders of the North Cascades Conservation Council, David Fluharty and Patrick Goldsworthy, say City Light should consider “mitigation for upstream impacts relating to wildlife populations and to recreational and scientific values associated with reservoir inundation in Ross Lake NRA.” Randall Hardy, superintendent of Seattle City Light, says previous High Ross studies are all that is needed.*

  • 1987 NOCA Park Superintendent John Reynolds submits a recreational development proposal for Ross Lake NRA to be funded by City Light under its new license. After 10 years of delays, FERC notifies City Light that it has nine months to submit its application. City Light is granted an extension of at least eighteen more months.

  • 1988 FERC places SCL on timeline for completion of relicensing.  N3C and others succeed in passing the Washington Parks Wilderness Act, which restricts FERC’s authority over City Light’s existing and proposed projects by placing much of Ross Lake NRA lands in statutory Wilderness. The new NPS General Management Plan, Recreation Plan and Wilderness Management Plan outline long-range projects on Park Service’s wish list for the mitigation package. City Light has not set a cost ceiling – the utility’s net worth is $100 million. Saul Weisberg of North Cascades Institute (NCI) and John Miles of the Huxley College of the Environment suggest to N3C that an environmental learning center could be a form of hydro project mitigation.

  • 1988 Washington Parks Wilderness Act passes, placing 94% of the Park and Rec. Area lands in formal Wilderness protection, finally ending proposals to build more roads, parking lots, boat launches, tramways and lodges within the Park.

  • 1989 Jonathan Jarvis, NOCA Park chief of resource management, says the Skagit project should be “operated and the effects of its presence be mitigated so as to have ‘no effect’ on the function of the larger ecosystem.” And that its “recreational potential be developed only to the point that the recreational use has ‘no effect’ on the function of the ecosystem.”* NOCA Park studies show hydro project has a significant effect on the upper Skagit Valley, wildlife and vegetation studies indicate that large habitat losses contributed to the decline of at least ten wildlife species, with scenic and cultural losses as well. SCL’s Environmental Affairs Division establishes negotiation forums for fisheries, recreation and aesthetics, wildlife, erosion, and cultural resources.

  • 1990 All parties sign a preliminary nonbinding agreement to abide by the proposals already on the table – the first formal commitment by the intervenors and SCL.

  • 1991 Agreement among intervenors and SCL on mitigation package currently in force today. SCL submits settlement to FERC. Mitigation package ensues.

    N3C argued and litigated for substantial mitigation. Many benefits ensued. You can read N3C’s perspective of the Skagit Project, its effect on the environment, and how we succeeded in stopping 3 major additions to the project in the Feb. 1992 issue of The Wild Cascades beginning on p. 5. The Hydro Reform Coalition has a succinct summary of the settlement’s wildlife protections. Other major benefits include the creation of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center operated by North Cascades Institute, and an andromous fish flow plan.

  • 2000-2010 As Climate Change becomes a public concern, SCL begins to call itself “The Nation’s Greenest Utility” and use the slogan “Green Power for the People.” See reports by NPR: Seattle Tackles Greenhouse Gases, and Seattle PI: No Global Warming at City Light

  • 2023   SCL announces that it intends to add “trap and haul” fish passage on its three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River, details of which have yet to be agreed to by all the License Partners or finalized in the in the new License.

Many thanks to N3C member Andrea A. for significant help transcribing historical documents to build this timeline, which is based on The Wild Cascades, various issues;  Paul C. Pitzer, Building the Skagit, The Galley Press, Portland, OR, 1978; John C Gibson, “The Evolution of the High Ross Dam Settlement“, The Northwest Environmental Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1985; Seattle City Light, Offer of Settlement; Skagit River Hydroelectric Project FERC No. 553, April 1991; N3C correspondence with Seattle City Light; and discussions with Thomas H. S. Brucker, NCCC Board member and attorney, and the late Patrick Goldsworthy, NCCC founder and long time Chairman of the Board.

*Contested Terrain: North Cascades National Park Service Complex Administrative History, David Louter, National Park Service, 1998

**Defending Wild Washington: A Citizen’s Guide to Action, Edward A. Whitesell, ed., Mountaineers Books, 2004