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Did Salmon Actually Use the Skagit River Before the Seattle Dams Were Built?

Beneath the city of Seattle’s Gorge Dam an unnatural silence reigns. This stretch of the Skagit River, known as the bypass reach, is a sacred gateway to the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s Valley of the Spirits. But now it’s completely dry, as the city diverts the river into a three-mile-long tunnel through a mountain to a power-generating facility below. Gorge Dam is the lowermost of the three large dams in the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project; the other two, Diablo and Ross, lie upstream. Together, they form the Skagit hydroelectric project and provide 20% of the energy Seattle City Light, the city’s public utility, produced in 2021.

The utility is applying for a new license to operate the dams which, if granted, could remain in effect for the next 50 years. But the process has come up against a seemingly simple question with huge implications: Did salmon, steelhead and trout ever actually use the river above these dams? If they did, the city may be required to provide access to the fish habitat above.

Seattle City Light, which has had a monopoly on energy in the city since 1951, has argued that the fish never accessed the stretches of the river where its dams and reservoirs now stand, at least not in significant numbers, and that because of this, the utility should not be required to take on the major infrastructure work of adding fish passage. However, a chorus of people, from federal agencies to tribal nations and their biologists, have offered up formidable evidence to the contrary, citing historical records, tribal histories and research, federal agency findings — even newspaper stories from the time the dams were being constructed in the early 1920s — which suggest fish did ascend the river, and that today they may need access to that habitat in order to survive.

If the dams were taken down or fish passage installed, Indigenous nations could see fish return to traditional fishing grounds and endangered species that rely on the river could be restored.

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