Safeguarding Skagit: Inside the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade

City Light’s Skagit Hydroelectric Project provides clean and efficient energy to Seattle’s customers, and its idyllic location provides spectacular, Instagram-worthy views of the North Cascades and Diablo Lake. Being nestled in such a remote location does have its advantages, but it can also provide its share of challenges when minutes count. During an emergency—whether someone has a bump or bruise during a dam tour or is involved in a serious traffic accident on the North Cascades Highway—a team of City Light employees take action, changing from their daily roles at the utility to act as members of the Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade.

For almost 60 years, this mostly volunteer group of first responders has gone above and beyond their assigned work duties at City Light to safeguard the residents and property of City Light, the Skagit Project and the North Cascades National Park. Fire Brigade Chief Cody Watson explains “the brigade fights fires and provides an emergency response like a typical fire department would; there are situations that require backup.” That’s why in 2008, a specialized group called the Skagit Technical Response Team (STRT) was created to supplement the brigade and provide aid during unusual rescue situations. Like the brigade, STRT is a team of City Light employees who are trained beyond their day-to-day skills.

In 2016, the brigade was crucial to the containment of the Goodell Creek Fire, which severely threatened the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and the surrounding communities. For Watson, an emergency of any size is important because of the brigade’s local impact.

“We have helped friends, family, co-workers and strangers who are often having the worst day of their lives,” says Watson. “The brigade provides services that no one else in this geographical area can. When the fire alarm goes off, they have to switch gears and put on a different hat. We have a pretty extraordinary team up here.”

Last November, the fire brigade added a new vehicle to their fleet, a state-of-the-art ambulance. The new vehicle replaced a unit that had been in service for nearly 25 years. Watson and the brigade worked closely with the City Light Fleet and Mobile Equipment team to build a unit that meets their unique needs. Some of the unique features include snow chains that engage with a flip of a switch, a hydraulic lift and cabin airbags to protect first responders when treating a patient.

Thank you, Newhalem-Diablo Fire Brigade, for keeping the City Light employees and its visitors safe!

 

Experience the majestic beauty of the North Cascades next summer on a Skagit Tour. Skagit Tours provide a fun and educational experience for people of all ages. Visit https://www.seattle.gov/light/damtours/skagit.asp for more information!

See Skagit: Diablo Lake Boat Tour

This summer, see the many places and meet the many faces of Skagit.

Tre on the new Alice Ross IV boat

Meet Tre Nabstedt. He’s one of three boat captains that takes you aboard Skagit Tour’s Alice Ross IV boat for an unforgettable cruise on Diablo Lake. This summer will mark his second season showcasing the incredible splendor of the area—from the distinctive turquoise color of the glacier-fed lakes to the architectural marvels of City Light’s Diablo and Ross dams. Tre recently sat down with us for a quick chat about Diablo Lake Boat Tours and what he enjoys most about working in the heart of Mother Nature.

Can you tell us a little about the Skagit Tours on Diablo Lake?
“Right from the beginning, people can expect to see a really nice glimpse of the natural beauty that lives here in the North Cascades. You get out on the water, see different wildlife and learn some fun facts about the lake, the surrounding mountains and glaciers, along with the fish and river ecosystems.

The tour also provides a more in-depth look of the natural systems and fascinating history of how the hydroelectric project was built and operated from the start of J.D. Ross’s vision up until today. It’s a pretty rewarding experience.”

A unique view of Ross Dam, one of three power generating developments at City Light’s Skagit Project

What type of wildlife is typically spotted?
“We see a ton of bald eagles, a lot of different species of ducks. You’re likely to see fish jumping out of the lake. You may see a deer, a black bear, or a mountain lion…there is SO much life up here.”

You never know what you’ll see in the North Cascades. This black bear was spotted during a Diablo Lake Boat Tour.

Who usually joins the tour?
“There’s always a great mix on board. Everyone from newlyweds and families to tour groups and retirees. Occasionally, folks will return to the tour and bring someone they want to share the experience with. It’s a great thing to give as a gift. We’ve also had a few multi-generational groups where grandparents bring grandchildren, which is always fun. It’s an easy day trip that pleases everyone.”

What are the common reactions people have when cruising the lake?
“I would say awestruck. People are completely amazed by the beauty. They’re generally very captivated. I never see bored faces.”

What attracted you to this job?
“By nature, I’m a mountain AND an ocean lover. We’re not on the ocean, but we’re still surrounded by this incredible water. I feel pretty lucky to spend my summers in Skagit…on a boat…up in the mountains. I love it.”

A stunning vista of Diablo Lake

Thank you, Tre, for providing a sneak peek of the “Skagit Magic” one can expect aboard! Seattle City Light has been offering the popular Diablo Lake Tour for more than 80 years, educating the community about the utility’s Skagit River Hydroelectric Project which provides clean, low-cost, renewable power to Seattle. To learn more or to book the tour, click here.

Skagit Tours: New and Improved for 2016

Today marks the beginning of the season for City Light’s Skagit Tours, and the experience for guests is better than ever this year. A new vessel, the Alice Ross IV, is making its debut on the Diablo Lake Boat Tours.


The new Alice Ross IV on a test run in April 2016

As it name implies, the Alice Ross IV is the fourth vessel to show visitors to the North Cascades the wonders of Diablo Lake. The Alice Ross boats have been in service to the public for more than 80 years. They are all named in honor of Alice Ross, the wife of J.D. Ross, the man who helped make hydroelectric energy generation along the Skagit River a reality.


The Alice Ross I on Diablo Lake in 1935

The Alice Ross IV is 55 feet long and has a capacity of 49 passengers and crew. It has an air-conditioned and heated cabin, an open aft deck and an onboard head. Best of all, it has large glass windows all along its cabin sides and roof, making for an excellent viewing experience—even from inside the boat.


Guests can stay dry and comfortable in the temperature-controlled cabin of the Alice Ross IV.

Located about 128 miles northeast of Seattle, Diablo Lake is a reservoir created by the Diablo Dam, one of three dams built in the last century on the Skagit River by Seattle City Light. Lake Diablo is a beautiful jade-turquoise color due to the glacial flour found in the waters that feed it.

 An aerial view of Diablo Lake looking south

City Light offers two different types of boat tours on Diablo Lake: a full tour that begins in the morning and ends in the afternoon, with a snack and lunch provided, or a shorter tour later in the afternoon. Both options provide visitors with an opportunity to learn about the unique history of the lake, the amazing biodiversity of the surrounding habitat and its wildlife. And, of course, views of the snow-capped mountains and jade waters are even more enjoyable from the cozy cabin of the new Alice Ross IV.

The 2016 Skagit Tours season closes in September 2016, but you should book today if you’d like to embark on his adventure. Dates are filling up quickly!

Book a Diablo Lake Boat Tour here.

Seattle City Light Crews Defend Skagit Hydroelectric Project from Fire

Seattle City Light crews are working today to reduce the risk of additional damage to the Skagit Hydroelectric Project from the advancing Goodell Creek Fire and are preparing to start repairs to damaged transmission lines.

Crews are working to clear vegetation around a wood pole line between the Diablo and Ross dams and powerhouses. The crews also plan to wrap the 70 wood poles in fire resistant material to reduce the risk of damage should the area burn. The line delivers backup power to restart generators and run control panels. The poles also carry fiber optic communications lines for the facilities.

Thursday, crews plan to start on-the-ground inspections 11 transmission towers for damage. Aerial views indicate that several of the towers have been damaged.

Safe access to the equipment in rugged terrain with fallen trees while the fire continues to burn is the first consideration for any of the work to take place. Provided with safe access, crews could start making repairs to the transmission lines by Saturday.

Damage to the transmission lines has limited City Light’s ability to generate and deliver power from the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. The utility has been able to resume generation of about 40 megawatts of electricity from its Gorge Powerhouse and deliver it on the North Mountain transmission line.

Typically, this time of year, the utility would be able to generate about 150 megawatts of power from the Skagit. The loss of transmission capacity is costing the utility about $100,000 a day.

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 about 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.

 

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/