Search This Blog

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Valley of the Dammed…

new controversyAs you know, readers, The Ripple has a nose for news…our mission: to ferret it out; however, this time of the year the news nose must have been stifled by allergies, the first fall cold, or onset hibernation because some local news has slipped under The Ripple’s radar. Last month I headed east to attend my mother’s ninetieth birthday celebration. Somewhere in the Goldbar vicinity I saw a sign draped over a fence. “The River Cannot Speak for Itself,” the sign read. “Well, of course it can’t,” I thought, “only a brook can babble.” As I continued on, I puzzled over the message and then recalled an earlier sign I’d seen tacked to a stake in a yard in town. Highlighted against a blue background, the message presented the universal ideograph for “No!” the red circle crossed by a red diagonal “Sno PUD dam.” Dam? I hadn’t heard about any dam thing. “Dam it,” I wondered, “Dam what?”

Upon my return from the 90th gala, The Ripple immediately summoned the research department and set it to task investigating this dam business. After peering under every rock and river cobble, the Ripple’s diligent research came up with the following dam information. Abiding by its mission to power up the public, our local Public Utility District is considering a dam business venture on the south fork of the Skykomish River. The Sky, a wild, free flowing montane watercourse, is on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Protected Rivers list. Snohomish County PUD has loosed their legal team on the “Protected Rivers Act” language looking for, so to speak, “a chink in the dam.”SNOHO PUD, sifting with a fine toothed comb through the convoluted, bloviated legalese of the Act,  has mined the following fortuitous caveat that allows projects on endangered rivers if it can be proved their construction will enhance “fish and wildlife habitat.”

In March 2012 the Federal  Energy Regulatory Commission granted Snohomish County PUD a permit  to proceed with a feasibility study for a hydroelectric project on the Sky River upstream from Sunset and Canyon Falls. What the PUD is “looking into” is a weir-type inflatable dam (bladdering the river?) whose height could be adjusted according to water flow to a maximum of seven feet.

I first came across the term “weir” in the novels of Charles Dickens. A Dickens’ weir was where a character either drowned or was murdered…not the best PR for a weir anywhere, it would seem. As far as a watercourse obstruction, a weir is a “wannabe” dam. (Perhaps the phrase “water over the dam” originated from a weir-type construction.) As a dam thing, a weir is child’s play compared to the behemoth concrete structures like Hoover, Grand Coulee, the Nile’s Aswan and China’s Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River. Rather than “dam” a river or stream, a weir is designed to impede the flow of water, create a reservoir behind it while allowing water to flow over the brim. (The small hydro dam/fish way on the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon is a weir-type dam.) Historically, weirs were installed for flood abatement and irrigation purposes.

When dams like the two Elwha River structures on the Olympic Peninsula are being removed, it seems somewhat retro for any modern agency to propose erecting a new one. The weir dam according to the PUD would be low profile physically (only a foot of the rim would be visible) and is being floated as a benign, innocuous structure advantageous to fish passage (the PUD presents the dam as the “Sunset Falls Fish Passage and Energy Project”: note the priority billing of “fish)) and purportedly would spark enough hydro power to supply 10,000 residences with electricity. Salmon fry would enjoy free portage by truck around the falls and dam to continue on to the happy spawning beds above.

As you might expect, the PUD’s dam project has its staunch opponents. Critics maintain the “proposed” project is a dam site for the worse, its upriver location sure to reduce three wild, pristine cataracts to “mere trickles.” And then there’ll be that unsightly powerhouse at the base of the falls. The opposition—property owners, environmental groups, and recreationists—say the Sunset Falls Project will do far more harm than good, that returns in the form of power revenue will be minimal at the expense of considerable environmental harm.

I have some experiences with dams. As a kid I built  mud dams on irrigation ditches myself. The reservoir behind Douglas County PUD’s Wells Hydro Electric Project destroyed the last stretch of wild river on the Upper Columbia River; forty feet of water now cover my childhood home site, and dam building playground. That stretch of river is currently fouled by milfoil; the spring run of whitefish no longer exists; and a lake environment has replaced a wild river habitat. Thus experience tells me any blockage of a watercourse most certainly alters it. So where does The Ripple stand on this dam issue? Let me say this: the Sky and its moods, both serene and rambunctious, affect our Valley water table and can send water rushing into our backyards. How will damming of the this beautiful mountain river affect the hydraulics of downriver terrain? PUD maintains the Sunset Falls dam will ebb and flow with the river, allow flood debris to flow downriver unimpeded (Watch out!). Perhaps that’s true, but tinkering with a moody river can have unintended consequences. Am I onboard with this project? I myself would much rather our friendly Snohomish County PUD assist the Werkhovens and Qualco Energy in adding a second generator to the Valley digester facility, pad the power grid that way rather than muck up the Sky.

I encourage readers of The Ripple to educate themselves on PUD’s projected dam business. You can read the “against” camp’s platform at Articles in The Monroe Monitor and The Sky Valley Chronicle present more balanced information on this current dam controversy.

For your information, while all this dam stuff is percolating upriver from us and the Valley, there’s some dam building in progress right here under our very noses. Let me bring you up to date on the project underway in the Lower Riley Slough. The Paddletail Corps of Engineers has constructed a weir-type filtration dam just upstream from the Lower Loop Bridge. (This porous obstruction allows the current to seep and trickle—filtrate--through the face of the dam but impedes the flow enough to back up water into a swimming pool-size reservoir.) The Paddletails are journeymen dam builders and unlike their human engineer counterparts, use only natural materials found in and around the dam site.

Slough weir dam

Consequently the Paddletails’ dams are “green” and blend into the landscape—unlike the monstrous concrete structures that become national monuments and blight our scenic river courses and wilderness landscapes. In fact the Riley Slough project is so discrete, I’m sure most Valley residents are not a dam site the wiser that it exists. The other day I happened upon one of the engineers hard at work, surrounded by bobbing construction materials, enthusiastically sinking his teeth into the project. You might say he was as just as busy as the old saying declares.the beav...

Print this post

No comments:

Post a Comment