Joint Press Release
Seattle City Light
Contact: Larry Vogel, ph: 206/684-3884
National Marine Fisheries Service
Contact: Brian Gorman, ph: 206/526-6613
NW Indian Fisheries Commission
Contact: Logan Harris, ph: 360/424-8226
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Contact: Doug Zimmer, ph: 360/753-4370
Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Contact: Jeff Weathersby, ph: 360/902-2256
SEATTLE -- More water is headed for the Skagit River this year, as Seattle City Light forgoes power generation to protect threatened Chinook salmon. Lower numbers of fish, their unprecedented early return, and a late snowmelt are prompting the utility to go beyond its federal license requirements for water release through at least February, 2000. Rather than hold water behind its Skagit River dams to generate power, City Light is voluntarily releasing extra water into the river in an all-out effort to preserve wild Chinook on the Skagit.
This year's run, estimated at 3,000 fish, is all that remains from the millions of eggs deposited in the Skagit in the falls of 1995 and 1996. The 1995 floods destroyed most of the nests before that year's eggs even had a chance to hatch. In addition, this year the Chinook began spawning early when the river was running high due to our unusually late snowmelt. Biologists monitoring the run estimate that these early-returning fish deposited approximately 165,000 eggs dangerously close to the upper waterline, increasing the risk of exposure during normal river flow fluctuations. Dry eggs die in a matter of minutes. Saving these at-risk eggs means that more than 25,000 additional juvenile Chinook will enter Puget Sound next spring, but the extra water that this requires could generate electricity worth between $0.5 and $2 million. "The river belongs to the fish first," says City Light Superintendent Gary Zarker. "We're committed to building healthy fish runs in the Skagit and all the rivers we influence."
Declining fish runs in the 1980's focused attention on the plight of the Skagit salmon. Tribes, agencies and Seattle City Light started working together to put "fish first," in Skagit River operations. Since 1990 Seattle City Light has regulated river flows from its three Skagit River hydroelectric dams with fish as the first priority, providing enough water at the right times to protect spawning salmon and the eggs they deposit in the riverbed. Power generation takes second place. In addition, the tribes, agencies and City Light are conducting studies that will lead to a long-term Chinook recovery plan.
This work is paying off: the upper Skagit River Chinook (in the 27 miles below the dams) is the healthiest wild Chinook stock in Puget Sound. This is at a time when other Puget Sound wild Chinook runs have been declining. Of the 14,900 Chinook returning to the Skagit in 1998, 11,000 (75 percent) spawned in the areas where the effects of City Light's flow management are most crucial.
Seattle City Light is committed to releasing sufficient water to ensure that 100% of the Chinook eggs remain covered throughout their incubation. Continuing with the "fish first" philosophy, the resource agencies, tribes and Seattle City Light are going beyond the current required regulatory measures to provide full and complete protection for this year's Chinook.
NOTE: Excellent recent video footage of salmon on the Skagit is available from Seattle City Light. Contact Larry Vogel, 206/684-3884.