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Brian Simonseth
01-31-2005, 01:31 AM
Sundays Skagit Valley Herald HOG WASH!

Flood Fight



Baker Dam flood storage has Skagit County at odds with a utility, agencies and tribes Skagit County is engaged in a war of words against an alliance made up of a utility, environmental agencies and Indian tribes.

At the center of the dispute is a guarantee of flood storage behind Lower Baker Dam.

Two months ago, the sides thought they had a compromise that provided 29,000 acre-feet - 9.4 billion gallons - of storage capacity in Lake Shannon, behind Lower Baker Dam. But in December, the agencies said there's a condition on that space - that it's subject to study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Skagit County officials, worried that the Corps would decide that the storage isn't worth the cost, had been trying to avoid getting the Corps involved.

Representatives from the groups say they're amazed that the county didn't realize what they meant.

"There's no accidental words in these articles," said Ed Schild, Puget Sound Energy's director of energy production and storage.

But Chal Martin, the county's public works director, said there's a difference between what the agencies said during negotiations and what they're saying now
Some of the agencies are now claiming that the agreement was intended as a "placeholder" for whatever the Corps comes up with, and that the 29,000 acre-feet is just a speculative number.

"I'm not sure we ever heard the word speculative during the relicensing negotiations," Martin said.

The dispute is a sharp contrast to the atmosphere of mutual congratulations in November, when Schild and the county commissioners signed what each side thought was a clear agreement.

Now, the commissioners talk angrily about what they consider a betrayal.

Earlier this month, Commissioner Ted Anderson said he favored pulling the county out of the agreement in an attempt to force PSE into a long, costly relicensing process. Anderson has since backed off, though, after learning that such a move could backfire.

The dispute is now being contested in letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the body that controls licenses for the dams.

Corps study ongoing
At stake is 29,000 acre-feet of flood-control storage in Lake Shannon, which could reduce the crest of a flood on the Skagit River by about a foot and a half. Lake Shannon is created by Lower Baker Dam, just north of Concrete.

PSE's present license, which expires next year, requires it to provide up to 100,000 acre-feet of storage behind Upper Baker Dam, although the Corps only requires it to provide 74,000 acre-feet. The compromise agreement, which PSE hopes will become part of the next license, would reduce the Upper Baker requirement to 74,000 acre-feet while adding the Lake Shannon capacity.

The Corps of Engineers has been studying the Skagit River basin, which includes the Baker River, since 1996. The study is slated to be done in 2008, but it was once scheduled to be finished in 2004. When it's done, it will have recommendations for the most cost-effective way to prevent flood damage in the lower part of the basin, which includes most of the county's urban population.

But Skagit County officials don't want to wait, and they don't trust the Corps to come up with a real solution.

"I have no faith whatsoever that the Corps will figure out a way to resolve this," Martin said.

He has a long list of complaints about the Corps' Seattle policy branch, which is doing the study. The agency is slow, he said, and he's skeptical that the study will be done by 2008. He believes the agency erects too many regulatory roadblocks to getting things down.

But at the top of the list is that the Corps once claimed that adding flood-control storage capacity to Lake Shannon wouldn't help. The county believed that - until the flood of October 2003.

It turned out that Lake Shannon had been used for flood control during the flood. Officially, the lake was drawn down to provide flood storage capacity to protect fish. Flood waters can gouge out the gravel beds where salmon lay their eggs.

But without the storage space that was created by the drawdown, floodwaters would likely have spilled over the sandbags on Mount Vernon's revetment, stacked there by hundreds of volunteers to protect downtown.

Andrea Takash, a spokeswoman for the Corps, said that what Martin may see as intransigence is really just diligence.

"The Corps continues to work closely with Skagit County officials on finding the best flood control alternative for the people of the Skagit Valley," she said, "and we must follow all the steps in the process in order to complete a thorough study so we come up with the best solution for the taxpayers' money."

Going to FERC
The Corps isn't the only route to get flood control, said Harry Hosey, an engineer with Pacific International Engineering, brought in by the county to help find a solution to keep residents dry. Hosey is a politically connected consultant with considerable experience in hydrological projects.

Utilities, such as Puget Sound Energy and Seattle City Light, are allowed to build dams that use public resources - rivers - to generate electricity to sell. But in exchange for use of the river, utilities must provide a benefit to the public, Hosey said.

That's where the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, comes in. The agency controls the licenses for dams, and in those licenses specifies what the dam owner has to do to pay back the public for use of the river resource. And one of the things FERC can require, Hosey said, is flood control.

And it just so happened that there was an opportunity for the county to get more flood control. Puget Sound Energy's 50-year license for the Baker River dams expires next year. The utility was busily meeting with 23 different governments, agencies, interest groups and individuals, trying to put together a package of provisions to present to FERC.

That work had been going on since 2001, and an extensive series of studies had been conducted to justify every provision for which every agency was asking.

When Skagit County officials discovered that flood-control space in Lake Shannon was viable in late 2003, they asked to have that added to the licensing process. But the other agencies resisted the latecomers.

The county persisted. It had Hosey's firm do a study, which said that 140,000 acre-feet of space in the two lakes was the optimum amount of flood-control storage. And county officials kept pointing to the current state of affairs, in which flood control space is provided to protect fish. If it's good for fish and good for people, they said, it's good enough to be included.

‘Cracks' in agreement
Last November, a compromise was reached - the county would get its 29,000 acre-feet of space in Lake Shannon and would work to get outside funding for the modifications needed for the dam.

Floods commonly come from what Martin calls "double-pumper" storms, where a heavy rain is followed by a lull before another heavy rain. The October 2003 and January 2005 floods are prime examples of that. If one storm fills up the 29,000 acre-feet, that space has to be emptied quickly, but the dam's spillways are so high that much of the water would need to be pumped out through the turbines, which are too slow to provide effective flood control. So the dam would need new spillways, which involves, basically, cutting a notch in the dam. That would cost millions of dollars.

The compromise was incorporated into the 162-page settlement agreement, which was shipped to FERC. But in a Dec. 8 teleconference, cracks in the agreement began to show.

The county thought the proposal was for FERC to grant the flood-control capacity, as long as the Corps didn't object. The agreement said the space "shall be provided only in accordance with arrangements that are acceptable to the Corps of Engineers."

But many of the other signers, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Swinomish and Sauk-Suiattle Indian tribes, don't want FERC to take any action on flood control, at least not yet. They told FERC that the proposal was merely a "placeholder" for whatever flood-control measures the Corps of Engineers comes up with in its study.

Why study?
Skagit County officials maintain there's not that much need for a study, because the conditions are observable now.

PSE already provides 29,000 acre-feet of flood storage in Lake Shannon as an "interim protection plan" in response to a lawsuit against the utility by the conservation group Washington Trout. The group had complained that PSE was harming chinook salmon, a threatened species, by the way it was operating its dams on the Baker River. The idea is to protect salmon eggs from the scouring effects of flooding, said Steve Fransen, a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The county's Martin says that shows that flood control not only doesn't hurt fish, it helps fish. And while the study that Hosey's firm did for the county - using much of the Corps' data - shows that 40,000 acre-feet would be ideal in Lake Shannon, the county settled for 29,000 because it's what is already in use.

But Fransen said the 29,000 acre-feet still needs to be studied to make sure there are no adverse environmental effects. Flood control benefits fish downstream of the dams, but there are other concerns, he said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, in a letter to FERC, had a list of 17 potential impacts that need to be studied, ranging from fish habitat in Lake Shannon to the ability of birds to forage for food to an increase in invasive weeds.

As far as the county is concerned, though, those potential impacts pale in comparison to the impacts that floods have on human lives and property. The county commissioners often characterize themselves as the only group in the process that cares about flooding's impact on people, rather than fish.

Declare victory?
County officials want FERC to take the issue on itself and do a brief study.

"It's FERC's obligation to decide how much storage is available or not," Hosey said.

The other parties maintain the study would take too long and delay implementation of the rest of the improvements in the license agreement. It would be better to let FERC defer the issue until later, they say.

Schild said the county should take what it has in the settlement and move forward.

"The opportunity here for everyone is to declare victory and go hand in hand," he said.

And Fransen said the interim protection plan is slated to remain in place until about 2012. That should give the county what it wants long enough for the Corps to finish its work.

But Anderson said that line of reasoning reminds him of what happened to the county in its negotiations for water rights in the Skagit River. In that case, an agreement was signed in which everybody got what they wanted except the county, and everybody promised the county's issues would be revisited, he said. That was four years ago, and that issue still isn't resolved.

James Geluso can be reached at 360-416-2146 or by e-mail at jgeluso@skagitvalleyherald.com

01-31-2005, 04:22 PM

Don't you just love my county's commissioners? But then again, they don't seem to have a problem allowing commercial retail development on the flood plain in the lower river.

Brian Simonseth
01-31-2005, 09:42 PM
You got it!

01-31-2005, 11:18 PM

Thanks for posting this article.

Could someone please summarize the key issues here? Like most PNW anglers I too have a deep appreciation for the Cascade rivers and if there is something we can all do (like bury a government official with correspondence or hit the big red BS stamp on a journalists aimless pontifications) then having the key issues on the table can put the gears in motion.

This guy writes like he gets paid by the word. :hihi:

02-01-2005, 01:04 PM

In a nut shell, the two power dams on the Baker River that are owned by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) are up for relicensing from FERC and PSE spent the last few years negotiating with the county, the Indain tribes, WDFW, etc. to expedite the relicensing. Skagit County commissioners wanted a guaranteed amount of water storage be left in the dams duing late fall/winter as a way to lesson "downriver flooding". How much flood protection to amount of water storage the county wants wil provide in not known, despite the county's attemps to claim it is. PSE agreed to provide additional flood storage in the two dams if the Army Corp of Engineers study on the river basin (which is not going to be completed until 2006 at the earliest) shows additional storage would lessen flooding on the middle and lower Skagit River.

The county agreed with this and now had decided that PSE must provide the extra storage the commissioners want regardless of what the Army Corp of Engineers study finds and recommends. This is why the county has taken this time frame to make an issue out of it. Since there have been two small floods this fall/winter so far this year, it is playing well with people who have built in the floodplain or next to the river (like the folks in the article Kerry S posted in a different thread).

Like Brian said, it is BS for the county commissioners to come out and make the claim the additional storage was already agreed to by PSE. It wasn't, but the commissioners are trying to get the public to yell and scream at FERC to do an end-run around the Army Corps study to get what they want.