5 Things to Explore at the Skagit Hydroelectric Project

Summer is in full swing here in the Pacific Northwest with the fall season peeking over the horizon. Before we know it, school will be back in session, leaves will start to change colors and the days will begin to get shorter. Now is the time to plan that one last road trip before Labor Day. City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project is just a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle and offers fantastic views and stops along the way! Nestled in North Cascades National Park, Skagit offers majestic mountain views, emerald waters and a rich history of providing clean energy to the Puget Sound. Here are a few of our favorite must-dos!

1) Explore the wares at the Skagit County General Store

Since 1922, the Skagit General Store has provided provisions for City Light employees and, more recently, road warriors alike. Today, employees and visitors alike can purchase milk, soda, and snacks, plus camping and picnic supplies. The store is especially known for its delicious homemade fudge! While they do offer samples, you’ll probably leave with a pound…or two.
(While you’re in Newhalem, be sure to get a selfie with Old Engine 6, the decommissioned train engine on the side of Highway 20!)

 

2) Feel the refreshing spray of water on Lake Diablo

Hop aboard the Alice Ross IV (named after the wife of City Light’s first superintendent, J.D. Ross) and set out on a tour of Diablo Lake. Experience parts of the lake that are typically hidden from view when traveling by highway or hiking on trails. Your tour will come alive with stories about the early explorers and settlers in the area and the challenges of dams and powerhouses in a very remote location. Skagit Tours offers lunch and afternoon tours. Between the almost-ethereal emerald waters and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, it will be a trip you will not soon forget.
Click here to register for a lake tour!

3) Climb around Ladder Creek Falls

Next to the Gorge Powerhouse flows the Ladder Creek Falls. A flight of stairs brings you close to the falls surging through imposing rock formations.
J.D. Ross envisioned and treated the Skagit Project as a theme park, and remnants of that vision are still visible to this day, specifically: the illuminated falls. At night, the falls come alive with color that change by the minute. The best way to experience falls is following Skagit Tours’ renowned Dam Good Chicken Dinner*, a meal that has been enjoyed for decades. It’s a Skagit Project essential!
*A vegetarian option is also available.  

4) Sign up for a class at the North Cascades Institute

The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center’s mission is to inspire and empower environmental stewardship for all through transformative educational experiences in nature. This beautiful facility was constructed with support from City Light and is operated by the North Cascades Institute. NCI offers classes that range in age range, duration and interest.
Click here to learn more!

5) Drive (or walk!) across Diablo Dam

Last, but certainly not least, the views from Diablo Dam are not to be missed on your excursion in Skagit. Just off of Highway 20, Diablo Dam provides a 360° view of mountains and Lake Diablo. Stick around and take a lake tour or venture out one of the many trails in the area.

These are just a few of our favorite things to explore in the area. Now it’s time for you to make your own must-do Skagit Project list! Learn more about the variety of tours offered through Skagit Tours. We’re confident you’ll find a tour that will pique your interest! But book soon! Most tours run through September and space is limited.

Click here to get started. See you soon in Skagit!

 

City Light Manages Skagit Flows to Protect 300,000 Salmon Eggs

Salmon eggs and fry in a redd, or nest.

Summer Chinook salmon spawn in the Skagit river from August through October each year — Photo by Dave Bickford, courtesty of U.S. Forest Service

Many Chinook salmon eggs laid in the Skagit River system last fall faced grim prospects for survival amid challenging water conditions. But a coordinated effort by Seattle City Light working with state and federal resource agencies and tribes along with an exceptionally wet March and April gave more than 300,000 of them the chance to grow up.

“From November through February, this appeared to be one of the worst water years we had seen in quite a while. It was some great teamwork and a huge increase in precipitation in March and April that really turned things around,” said Dave Clement, Resource Planning, Forecasting, and Analysis Director for City Light.

Chinook salmon spawning season typically lasts from mid-August to mid-October each year. This past September, during the peak of spawning activity, record rainfall levels allowed chinook salmon to dig nest sites in areas that would be dry when water levels returned to normal.

The summer Chinook salmon are a federally-listed species with Endangered Species Act protection. But dry weather conditions from November 2013 through February of this year meant those salmon eggs were likely to be left out to dry and die.

“The situation required the release of far more water from the hydro project than we had originally planned so as to protect as many of the salmon nest sites as possible,” explained David Pflug, fisheries biologist at City Light.

City Light manages flow levels in the Skagit River system to meet a several key objectives each year: protecting fish that live and spawn in the river downstream, generating sufficient power to meet the energy needs of our customers throughout the year, preventing floods downstream of the dams and keeping the river and Ross Lake at elevations that permit recreation such as boating and fishing. In addition, Ross Lake serves an important function as a reservoir to hold water that is used to generate electricity in drier times during the year.

The trick is managing the right water levels for each of these objectives, while working with highly variable precipitation levels that are ultimately decided on by Mother Nature.

That’s the situation City Light found itself in earlier this year. The region had one of the lowest levels of precipitation in more than a decade from November to February, and was facing perhaps one of the worst water years in history.

Ross Dam on the Skagit River creates Ross Lake, which is full for summer recreation and hydropower generation.

Pflug works closely with the utility’s Resource Planning staff, who plan optimum water levels. He discovered that there were many Chinook salmon redds spawned high on the riverbank in September during the rainy spawning season. The dry weather conditions during winter meant it would be difficult to protect the redds under normal operations.

That information went to the Skagit Project Flow Coordinating Committee comprised of state, federal fisheries resource agencies and tribe. City Light’s Resource Planning team worked with the committee to come up with a plan to protect the nest sites, which required the release of additional water and taking the risk of not being able to refill Ross Lake for use later in the year. With the survival of the Chinook at stake, the plan was approved.

City Light kept the river flow levels up to protect the salmon nests from November of 2013 to May of 2014. It took a significant amount of teamwork, including daily monitoring of water elevation levels and careful management to ensure the protection of the nests. Coordination between multiple divisions ensued, including Pflug, Power Management planners Ole Kjosnes and Don Tinker, the Power Marketing team and the System Control Center team. Continuing dry conditions also worried resource planners about the ability refill Ross Lake, which powers Ross Dam through the summer and is a key recreational area within the North Cascades National Park complex.

 

These graphs show the cumulative snowpack and precipitation levels, measured in inches. The blue line is the average level, while the green line tracks the dry water year of 2014. The yellow line, by way of comparison, measures levels during the severe dry spell of water year 2001.

Then came the wettest March in history.

And more precipitation in April.

That rain and the snow that fell higher up in the mountains provided the water for City Light to protect the redds and refill the lake. This voluntary effort resulted in the protection of 31 nest sites that would have otherwise been lost– a resounding success, especially considering their initial odds of survival.

Those 31 redds add up to approximately 300,000 protected salmon eggs.

A full Ross Lake will allow for increased river flows through July, enabling better protection of Steelhead that will be spawning the Skagit River and additional energy generation from City Light’s Ross, Diablo and Gorge hydroelectric dams.

“It was a good thing we released more water than we normally would have – because that made room in Ross Lake to collect more of the large amount of water that came in March and April and avoided some spill through the spill gates,” Clement said. “So in a way, the fish helped us out, too.”

Seattle City Light is the 10th-largest public electric utility in the United States. It has some of the lowest cost customer rates of any urban utility, providing reliable, renewable and environmentally responsible power to nearly 750,000 Seattle-area residents. City Light has been greenhouse gas neutral since 2005, the first electric utility in the nation to achieve that distinction. More information at: http://www.seattle.gov/light/