Seattle City Light officials detail latest watershed protection efforts

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Seattle City Light plans to use a new $1,619,605 grant to continue decades-old programs to conserve habitat in the Skagit Watershed of Washington state, in particular the spawning grounds of the endangered chinook salmon and steelhead trout.

In one form or another, the public power entity has been working to protect and enhance the watershed since around 1980 as it goes about its business of generating hydroelectric power from the river.

Denise Krownbell, senior environmental analyst for the utility, said the new money approved for Seattle City Light and the Skagit Land Trust will be used to purchase at least 100 acres in the watershed, with a goal of protecting the chinook and steelhead habitat. The project partners will ask landowners to voluntarily sell their land. The money probably will be earmarked over four years, from 2019 through 2023, she said.

As part of the project, invasive blackberry bushes that line parts of the river will continue to be removed, replaced by trees whose canopies provide welcome shade for the river and offer the delectable possibility of bugs falling from leaves into the water, where they can be snapped up by the salmon.

As Krownbell and Erin Lowery, the public power utility’s fish biologist, are fully aware, Seattle City Light is just one user of the water. So are the salmon.

Lowery loved to fish in the region as a boy, eventually incorporating his favorite pastime with science to protect the salmon habitat. He has been working for the utility for four years.

For far longer than that, the utility has regularly moderated downstream water flows "to optimize fisheries production," Lowery said. "Once we establish a spawning flow, we have associated minimum flows with that for the eggs to remain wet during the incubation period. Then, we have to adjust flows to allow fish to emerge from gravel and travel downstream." Both the chinook and steelhead spawn in the Skagit Mainstream below City Light’s project and are listed as threatened with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act.

For the most part, the flow moderation efforts plan is implemented year-round. Salmon spawn in the river for about nine months a year, according to Lowery. There also is an incubation period. "There is always some kind of action taken by us to assist spawning fish and incubating eggs."

In late 2018, the salmon landscape faces a variety of challenges. As Lowery pointed out, sedimentation from past logging activity in the region poses a potential threat as do such staples of modern-day existence like highway protection structures. "We add all of this up and you start to see pretty dramatic changes in productivity of salmon populations," he said.

Seattle City Light wants to be an agent of positive change for the fish. The approximately 20-mile stretch of the Skagit River that is the utility’s conservation focus is part of Puget Sound, and Lowery said some species of salmon are doing better than others in the Sound. "Relative to the other populations in the Puget Sound, there are really a lot of success stories out there for those fish, chinook and steelhead, in the Skagit River."

To learn more about Seattle City Light’s efforts to revitalize and maintain salmon habitats, click here.