Get Off My River: Inside the Battle to Keep the Skykomish Wild


Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

The South Fork of the Skykomish, just above Sunset Falls. Photo: Mary Catherine O'Connor

When I lived for a short time in Index, Washington, a climbing and boating hotspot on the Skykomish River in the north central Cascades, it felt like equal parts Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. But despite its eccentric residents and quirky vibe, Index is like Mayberry compared to the South Fork of the Skykomish, a sprawling community of river cabins and trailers, near where the south and north forks of the river merge.

For me, the South Fork was shrouded in mystery and clouds (literally, usually). The residents, I was told, tended to be fiercely libertarian. I had always gotten a kind of Get Off My Land vibe from the area, but that was around 15 years ago. Maybe things had changed? So when I found out that the local utility district wants to build a small hydropower dam on the river, and that a friend of mine has a family cabin on the South Fork, I saw a chance to both report on the dam proposal and to delve into that, um, intriguing community.

Here is the soundbite version of what I learned: the dam might just happen—and it could really alter the river—and the people of the South Fork are very nice, articulate and welcoming … except for the ones who aren't.

Everything seemed quite familiar as I pulled off Highway 2, past the trailhead for Lake Serene, and saw the first of many No Trespassing signs posted at the mouth of each driveway and side road along the washboard dirt road that winds along the river. With the car windows down, I could hear the roar of Sunset Falls as soon as it came into view. The Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) hopes to convert the power of that Cascadian water into electrons.

In March, the PUD received a three-year exclusive license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to explore and test the proposed dam site. Around that time, residents starting organizing an opposition to the project, dubbing the campaign Save the Skykomish River.

The PUD characterizes the proposed dam as a “low-impact small hydropower generation” site that would include an inflatable weir. The weir would be inflated (up to eight feet high) and deflated in order to regulate the river's flow, while a nearby intake tunnel would divert a portion of the river to generate power. A number of factors make the site attractive from the utility's perspective: nearby transmission lines mean easy connection to the power grid, roads to the site already exist and Sunset Falls is a natural barrier to spawning fish so the dam would not cut of any spawning runs.

But to the residents who oppose the proposal, this small hydro project sounds more like a major spoiler. They fear that the small inflatable weir will actually be a big eyesore, that it would harm the ecosystem, that the intake tunnel construction would mean years of blasting through bedrock and that the diverted water would reduce Sunset Falls to a trickle.

Rex Harmon wore a down vest to beat the chill on a mid-July morning as we sat, drinking coffee, on the edge of a 40-foot embankment over the South Fork in the backyard of the home where he and his wife Chris have been full-time residents for the past 20 years. A few hundred feet upstream, we could see the spot where the PUD wants to install the inflatable weir.

Rex Harmon; the proposed dam would be constructed at the riverbend. Photo: Mary Catherine O'Connor

Harmon, who works in the medical device industry, is no stranger to hydro power. “I grew up near the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River and my dad worked for the Bonneville Power Association,” he said. “So I have knowledge on both sides of the issue here and I understand hydro power. But the Columbia runs through the desert while this is a rich rainforest. This is the wrong place to build a dam.”

I let the NIMBYism in that sentiment pass and asked what he's most worried about. It comes down to the many unknowns and the potential for this small hydro proposal to evolve into a major project that far exceeds the images of a simple, nearly invisible weir that the PUD has proposed. Flooding events have become more severe in the decades Harmon has lived on the river, and he's doubtful of the PUD's assurances that the dam would not worsen natural flooding.

While there are 1,000 lots along the meandering South Fork, first parceled and sold as camping sites in the 1950s, there are only 500 property owners and roughly 100 year-round residents. This makes road maintenance a confusing and contentious process, as many absent landowners don't pay their fair share of the fees, according to Lynne Kelly, another full-time resident, a horse trainer and a dam opponent.

The public used to have access to the lagoon below Sunset Falls and it was a popular put-in spot for kayakers, but after too many near-misses between boaters' cars and trucks hauling fish from a trap-and-haul facility below the falls, the public road access was closed off.

If the PUD were to build the dam, it would also reopen the roads to public access, which boaters, at least, would welcome. Carrot number one. But for the local landowners who equate public access with a loss of privacy and security, this isn't appealing. That said, PUD would also need to re-pave and improve the roads in order to accommodate construction trucks. So for some landowners, this is a big, juicy carrot.

On the flipside, said Kelly, maintenance costs would fall back on landowners in the future. She also worries that the PUD might claim its right to eminent domain in order to construct the dam and intake tunnel.

But an even bigger, more enticing carrot is one that PUD wants to offer local Native American tribes, which rely on revenues from a salmon fishery that is boosted by fish that are trapped and hauled upstream from the base of Sunset Falls, since it's impassable to anadromos fish. The PUD is offering to renovate and improve the current, aging trap and haul facility, which would mean more fish added to the fishery each year.

“The tribes have been opposed to [hydro] development at this site historically, but in the past few months they've [changed their stance],” said Tom O'Keefe, the pacific northwest stewardship director of American Whitewater, a river conservation group that opposes the proposed dam. “They told me that they had concerns, but the improved trap and haul would was pretty compelling.”

Without the tribe's approval, the dam won't be able to move forward, so PUD might have successfully wooed an important stakeholder.

Canyon Falls, upstream from Sunset Falls. Photo: Mary Catherine O'Connor

Kim Moore, assistant general manager at the Snohomish PUD, cast the project as “very, very early stage” and stressed that many different scientific, economic and policy-related hurdles stand between the vision for the hydro project and the likelihood that it will go forward. Aside from tribal buy-in, the utility still needs to complete environmental impact studies and obtain permits from more than 10 different county, state and federal regulatory agencies, he said, not to mention various construction and aquatic permits.

“Right now there is a fair amount of unknowns,” he said. “The studies could show that diverting water could impact the fisheries, or we might run into a geophysical problem.” Or, the cost-benefit equation might change, putting the near-term costs too high to justify the long-term power supply.

That said, the Snohomish PUD is clearly already invested in the project and feels strongly enough about its relative value as a power source to front the many tests and studies it still needs to clear. Most of the county's power is currently purchased from the Bonneville Power Association and generated through major hydro projects along the Columbia. But the Snohomish PUD is looking to diversify its power portfolio and generate more of it locally—it recently built a small hydro project on a nearby river and it is also pursuing tidal and geothermal energy sources.

As I settled into my borrowed cabin for the night, I opened the windows wide so I could hear the rush of the river. As it happens, the cabin sits directly above the bedrock through which the PUD hopes to drill a 19-foot-wide intake tunnel, which would carry the diverted river water to a powerhouse. The dam would dampen that pretty river sound and completely alter the river view from the cabin. That would be a shame for my friend who owns the place, and for people like Harmon and Kelly,  who really care about this stretch of water. But the dam would be far from the only scar on this lush slice of Cascadia, above which stunning Mount Index looms. Plenty of uncaring residents are already doing their best to trash the place.

“It's millionaires and meth heads,” is how one person described the South Fork. That's an exaggeration—I'd guess there are relatively few of each. But as I walked along the river road, I passed a large, well maintained home with a manicured lawn sitting next to something best described as an RV cemetery. It was packed with old cars and rusting sheds and it actually smelled bad. I could hear someone banging around a heap of metal and for a second I considered stopping, but the 10 or so No Trespassing signs and the blaring AM radio, over which I heard some rant about Obama and health care, told me that maybe this local wasn't up for an interview. (Or that if he was, I wasn't.)

The next day I met Bill Gould, a retired physician who lives on the river and writes novels, and he showed me photos of a lot across the road from his house that made the RV cemetery look like a suburban track home. Over the preceding months, Gould had convinced the former owner to let him buy the lot. Once he did, Gould spent weeks clearing out the mountains of old stereos and beer cans and molding garbage that had been hoarded there. It took more than 20 dump trucks to clear the land. “I like to come here at the end of the day and I just sit and look around,” said Gould, who said he'd like to see Snohomish PUD concentrate more on energy conservation projects instead of building any new dams, especially on the Skykomish.

While the utility is seeking public support and says it will factor public opinion into its decision-making process, if all the needed permits are acquired, the utility's board of commissioners will make the final call. Washington has designated the Skykomish as a State Scenic Waterway, but that does not represent an ironclad protection for the river. A Federal Wild and Scenic River designation, on the other hand, would. But Congress has failed—for more than 20 years—to get the Skykomish on the list.

Opposition to the proposed dam extends well beyond the wooded lots and riverfront properties I visited on my reporting trip, however. American Whitewater and a number of other environmental groups, including American Rivers, which included the river on its “Top 10 Most Endangered” list of 2012, are also speaking out. These groups are not just opposing this single dam proposal, but rather the whole notion that utility companies are still pursuing hydro power, even if it is in the form of “small” or “mini” dams.

“This project is indicative of a troubling trend, nationally, where you are seeing an assault and attempt to roll back environmental protections on rivers and public lands in general,” said O'Keefe. “Would the [Sunset Falls dam] look like Grand Coulee? No. But will it be highly visible on a scenic river.”

“This is a battleground for small hydropower,” said Harmon. “If they win here, they win in 100 other places in Washington.”

—Mary Catherine O'Connor