More power to City Light, steward of Skagit salmon

Kisses of orange and red adorn the trees over the Upper Skagit River, hinting at the changing season. Occasional ospreys and a lone bald eagle lazily swoop over the river, almost smooth-surfaced on a recent morning.

But put on your polarized sunglasses and look beneath the shimmering surface. The channel is as busy and congested as Interstate 5 in a Seattle rush hour.

Pink salmon are taking the shallow water, their backs wiggling above the surface as they move rocks to make their redds, or spawning nests. Further in, the much larger chinook are staking out the deep water, turning larger rocks before they spawn. Others are treading water, waiting for their biological alarm clocks to sound.

In the stretch below Cascade River Road, fisheries biologist Dave Pflug maneuvers his boat to give peeping humans a look at this astounding display of nature's impulse. Fish scatter as if he were a policeman knocking on steamed-up windows of parked cars.

The scene stretches for miles and tells a success story of Seattle City Light's management of its three dams on the Upper Skagit for both energy and fish. But an important dimension of City Light's successful management of the Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams, which produce about one-quarter of Seattle's needed power, is its sincere collaboration with tribes and federal and state agencies on the Wild and Scenic River.

While salmon runs throughout the Pacific Northwest are posting impressive numbers, partly because of improving ocean conditions, the success is amplified in the Upper Skagit. City Light's Pflug notes that the Skagit's most successful spawning area is the reach below the utility's dams, which were built above natural barriers to salmon runs.

"It's looking today like its going to be the best run in four decades," Pflug said of the pink salmon run. By the end of October, Pflug estimates that as many as 2 million pink salmon will spawn in the Upper Skagit — more than five times its goal of spawning stock needed for healthy runs. This is the first year in several that anglers have been able to keep their pink catch.

Last fall, about 345,000 chum returned, a rate almost three times its escapement goal, and the best run documented since 1979. Chinook are expected to be strong again this year. Last year's run of about 14,000 was the best since 1974.

Probably the most important work takes place off river as City Light monitors precipitation and mountain snowpack levels. Working with three tribes and federal and state agencies, City Light establishes a flow regime to manage the dams. Perhaps the most important part of that work is grounded in the utility's respectful and trustworthy approach that draws superlative praise from City Light's collaborators.

"Seattle City Light's relationship with fisheries interests is one of the best, if not the best, on the West Coast," says Steven Fransen, an Olympia-based fisheries biologist with the federal NOAA Fisheries. "... When the cost to energy is small, Seattle is willing to step up and be big for fish."

Stan Walsh, a fisheries biologist who works for the Sauk-Suiattle and Swinomish tribes, said City Light's abiding commitment to good decisions for fish has nurtured a trusting relationship with the tribes that fosters give and take.

Once, when fish returned early and spawned high in the river, Seattle City Light opted to keep river levels high to protect the redds — at a cost to later power production. During the 2000 drought, the partners agreed to relax license requirements for flow levels so the utility could generate more electricity. City Light had made the case that lower flows at the time wouldn't hurt fish.

"They've actually gone the extra mile beyond the bottom line of their license and given extra water for fish," Walsh said. "And we've been able to return the favor a little bit when they needed it."

The partnership goes beyond flow regimes. Under City Light's license agreement, the utility agreed to spend about $1.5 million in mitigation for the dams. The dams eliminated the river's natural flooding that creates off-channel habitat, the particular preference of spawning chum and coho. The utility has leveraged that money to attract more and has created about 2.5 miles of off-channel habitat to help boost those runs.

With the Upper Skagit River so crowded with fish, it's easy to see why City Light has such enthusiastic fans, rather than tense adversaries, among the tribes and federal and state agencies. Seattle City Light is committed to fish and energy, not one over the other.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is