Relicensing the Skagit Hydroelectric Project

Ross Lake
A view of Ross Lake (Photo credit: Bonnie Decker)

Project Description

Seattle City Light is in the process of relicensing the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. The project is a series of three dams that provide 20% of City Light’s power, and it is licensed under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The current license expires in 2025.

Renewing the license also means reviewing the safety, cost, environmental, and cultural impacts of the continued operation of the project. Between 2020 and 2023, we will collaborate with local partners to develop an application for a new license that will last for the next 30-50 years. The license will include requirements around protecting the environment and the culture of the watershed.

Clean, Carbon-Free Electricity

Renewing our federal operating license will allow City Light’s Skagit Project to continue producing clean, carbon-free energy while also safeguarding the cultural and natural resources in the area.

Under the new license, City Light will:

  • Adapt to changing climate conditions and customer demand.
  • Continue to work with partners to protect and improve natural and cultural resources.
  • Optimize power generation and non-power benefits like flood control, downstream fish habitat protection, and recreation.
  • Use cutting-edge science to protect resources and mitigate for project effects.
  • Identify opportunities to reduce electricity costs for City Light customers.

Key Milestones in the Relicensing Process

An important part of getting a new license is studying the impacts of the hydroelectric dams within the Skagit Project area.

City Light is working with 38 partner organizations and consulting parties—including federal and state agencies, Indian tribes, and non-governmental organizations—to gather information needed to ensure the protection of natural and cultural resources within the Skagit Project area for the duration of the new license. Some studies began during the summer of 2020, and others are still being planned. The studies required for the FERC process must be completed by 2023; however, City Light plans will also be informed by dam-impact studies that happen outside FERC’s timelines.

We will be performing:

  • Recreation studies to evaluate how visitors use the area around the project for boating, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
  • Fisheries and aquatics studies to evaluate habitat for Pacific salmon, steelhead and bull trout. This helps us determine the timing and amount of water to release from dams in order to protect adult salmon when they are spawning and young fish when they emerge from their eggs. Studies also evaluate water quality of the Skagit River to support fish and wildlife downstream.
  • Cultural resource studies to inventory and record historic buildings, archaeological sites, and traditional cultural places that may be vulnerable.
  • Wildlife and botanical studies to assess the condition of habitat for sensitive wildlife species and for rare and culturally important plant species. These studies will help us understand how best to protect these species.

Latest News

On July 16, 2021, FERC approved Seattle City Light’s study plans. Their study plan determination includes some modifications to some of the proposed studies, which City Light will be making; it also details what studies are not required by FERC as part of the license. City Light-submitted studies will still be completed as part of our commitments to our partners, even if they are not required by FERC.

On Aug. 4, City Light shared with partners the plans to do an important assessment of ongoing need for the dams.

The study plan, as noted above, was developed in close collaboration with the license participants. One of the important issues raised during that process was around dam removal. Removing one, two or even three dams would have significant impacts on the ecosystem, flood control, electricity supply and cultural resources of the river watershed. Gorge Dam and the entire Skagit Hydroelectric Project are a vital component of our strategy toward a clean, carbon-free energy future, and FERC is not requiring a removal study as part of the next license.

However, the question of dam removal is important and requires long-term planning. After listening to license participants and examining the regulatory options, City Light will be doing comprehensive decommissioning assessment to answer the question “Should we consider removing any or all of the dams on the Skagit?” The assessment is a standard tool developed to help utilities with these complex issues, and City Light will be performing it several times during the life of the next license.

To read more about the assessment, visit our Powerlines blog.

Below are links to documents relating to the study plan:

  • Access Fund & Washington Climbers Coalition
  • American Rivers
  • American Whitewater
  • Hydro Reform Coalition
  • Lummi Nation
  • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
  • Nlaka'pamux Nation
  • Nooksack Indian Tribe
  • North Cascades Conservation Council (NCCC)
  • North Cascades Institute (NCI)
  • Samish Tribe
  • Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe
  • Skagit County
  • Skagit County Dike District Partnership (SCDDP)
  • Skagit Drainage and Irrigation District Consortium (SDIDC)
  • Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (SEEC)
  • Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group
  • Skagit River System Cooperative (SRSC)
  • Snohomish County
  • Snoqualmie Indian Tribe
  • Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians
  • Stó:lō Nation
  • Suquamish Tribe
  • Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
  • Trout Unlimited
  • Ts'elxwéyeqw Tribe
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
  • U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
  • U.S. Department of the Interior
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
  • U.S. Forest Service (USFS)
  • U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
  • U.S. National Park Service (NPS)
  • Upper Skagit Indian Tribe
  • Washington Climbers Coalition
  • Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP)
  • Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology)
  • Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)

2020
4/30: City Light files Pre-Application Document (PAD)
10/24: Deadline for public comments on PAD and study requests to FERC
12/8: City Light files Proposed Study Plan (PSP)
2021
3/8: Deadline for public comments on PSP
4/7: City Light files Revised Study Plan (RSP)
5/6: Deadline for public comments on RSP
2022
12/1: City Light files Draft License Application (DLA)
2023
3/1: Deadline for public comments on DLA
4/30: Final License Application (FLA) filing deadline
2025
4/30: Current FERC license expires

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Past Newsletters:

November 2021 | September 2021

Use the form below to contact City Light staff for additional questions about the Skagit Project relicensing and associated resource management topics.

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Visit the online library to find Skagit Project relicensing documents, background information about the Skagit River watershed and additional resources.

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Frequently Asked Questions

The Project is a series of three dams in the upper Skagit River watershed that generate about 20 percent of Seattle City Light’s power. Hydropower is clean, carbon-free energy and the leading source of renewable energy in the U.S.

The Project is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The current license, issued in 1995, regulates the Project’s operations and includes numerous measures to protect fisheries and other public resources. Seattle City Light is seeking a new license because the current license expires in 2025.

Relicensing is an opportunity for Seattle City Light to study and assess the current conditions of the Skagit River ecosystem to ensure that future operations of the Project help protect one of the most important rivers in Puget Sound.

Seattle City Light has been an active partner in the watershed for many years. In 2019, Seattle City Light began collaborating with over 30 License Participants—Tribes, federal and state agencies, local governments, and non-profits—to develop an application for a new FERC license that will last for the next 30-50 years.

On April 7, 2021, Seattle City Light submitted to FERC a Revised Study Plan—a substantially changed proposal from the Proposed Study Plan (December 2020)—based on input from License Participants.

The RSP focuses on the geographic area in the vicinity of the hydropower project and transmission lines, and on environmental issues related to operating the dams in the river. Robust environmental study is key to understanding the benefits and effects of the Project and Seattle City Light is committed to using sound science to guide future decisions.

The RSP is responsive to and incorporates significant input from the License Participants. It describes 33 proposed studies related to fish populations, river ecology, flood risk, water quality, wildlife, cultural and historic resources, recreation, safety, and more. While Seattle City Light is paying for this research, which based on current estimates will cost over $20 million, the License Participants and other scientific experts will help guide the work.

Yes. In addition to our existing license implementation and science grant programs, we are using this relicensing opportunity to look even deeper into the surrounding ecosystem with additional studies, such as a food web study that is looking at food supply for fish in the reservoirs.

As part of its commitment to do more for the Skagit River watershed, Seattle City Light is also undertaking additional protection, mitigation, and enhancement measures outside of the FERC process, and in addition to the Project’s existing FERC license obligations.

We understand the profound importance to Tribes and other Licensing Participants of instream flows below Gorge Dam. Seattle City Light is committed to providing flows in the bypass as soon as possible and as part of a long-term commitment in the new license. Seattle City Light is working with the Licensing Participants to identify appropriate flows for the bypass reach that consider cultural, spiritual, aesthetic, and ecological interests.

Additionally, Seattle City Light is establishing a new fund to benefit Endangered Species Act-listed species in the Skagit River watershed. The fund will be used for fish and aquatic habitat projects and studies. The goal for this fund is to bring substantial new resources to protect, conserve, and restore the fisheries resources and aquatic habitat of the Skagit River.

Seattle City Light, in close collaboration with the License Participants, is launching a two-year study implementation phase, and putting dozens of scientists in the field. The studies will assist Seattle City Light with balancing the complex issues around cost, the need for clean, renewable energy and its commitment to protect the Skagit River ecosystem and surrounding community.

Seattle City Light will eventually file the Final License Application (FLA) with FERC in April 2023. Seattle City Light will also seek a Clean Water Act water quality certification from the Washington State Department of Ecology as part of the relicensing. In order to protect salmon, steelhead, and other Endangered Species Act listed species, FERC will also consult with National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.