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Concerns remain over PSE’s Snoqualmie Falls hydro plant project

  • Written by Oliver Lazenby

Lower Valley residents say it may increase flooding

Three of the four largest floods on record have surged over the banks of the Snoqualmie River in the last five years. The floods destroyed roads and houses, drowned animals, gouged 10-foot-deep craters into fertile fields and deposited silt and sand over farmland.

Flooding is certainly part of living in a floodplain, but developments such as Snoqualmie Ridge, Trossachs, Redmond Ridge and the Snoqualmie Casino worsen flooding. When these developments are paved, ground loses its ability to absorb and slow down rainwater on its way to the river.

"We are the stormwater repository for the new developments," said Erick Haakenson, owner of Jubilee Farm near Fall City.

Haakenson is a board member of the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance, a nonprofit group of Valley farmers, residents and business owners who want to combat flooding.

The preservation alliance is taking aim at Puget Sound Energy and their work at the Snoqualmie Falls hydro plant, which has the potential to increase flooding in the Lower Valley. The group sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, challenging their permitting of Puget Sound Energy’s construction, which includes widening the river and lowering the diversion dam that directs water towards the powerhouse by two feet.

The construction, which started this spring, is part of a three-and-a-half year plan to upgrade the 100-year-old power equipment and the recreation area.

PSE’s work will remove a bottleneck in the river. This will ease flooding in Snoqualmie but have negative effects downstream. According to a PSE document titled Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Improvement Plan, the water height of a massive flood in Carnation will be a third of an inch higher.

"The affect on downstream flows based on our project are negligible," PSE spokesperson Roger Thompson said. "Our project doesn’t store a significant amount of water."

PSE is required to do the work by their Federal Energy Regulation Permit, Thompson said.

PSE’s data is not based on a current study, but was extrapolated from a study done in the 1990s using outdated methods, said Geary Eppley, president of the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance.

"We want flood mitigation for the city of Snoqualmie in a way that doesn’t push the problems down stream," Eppley said. "We don’t want PSE to send more water down to us without checking the actual effects."

Neither Puget Sound Energy nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could comment on how they analyzed the affects of the project on downstream flooding.

Lawsuit

In July, the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the permits they issued to PSE. They say the corps didn’t take into account the project’s impact to flooding in the Lower Valley when issuing the permit.

Puget Sound Energy joined the lawsuit in August 2010.

"The corps failed to follow their own procedure in permitting the PSE project," Eppley said.

The corps used the Nationwide Permit Program. The program is designed to streamline the application process on projects with minimal impacts to the environment, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website.

The corps authorized lowering the dam under the Maintenance Nationwide Permit, and removing fill under the Commercial and Institutional Developments Nationwide Permit.

"Widening the river for flood release is not commercial development," Eppley said.

There is a Nationwide Permit specifically for hydropower, but it can only apply to hydropower projects with a total generating capacity less than 5,000 kilowatt hours. The Snoqualmie hydroproject has nearly 10 times more generating capacity.

"PSE knew about the concerns of the Lower Valley residents and applied for the permits that they did knowing that there would be no public process," said Charles Klinge, attorney for the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance. "It’s not clear to us whether the corps even thought about flooding impacts down stream."

PSE should have applied for an individual permit, which would be better tailored to the hydroelectric project and require public notice, Klinge said.

Klinge expects the judge to make a decision by the end of the year.

If the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance wins, Puget Sound Energy would likely have to stop construction and go through the individual permit process, Klinge said.

Regardless of how the judge rules, there will probably be appeals.

"When we win, which we expect we will, we will need money to fight the appeals," Eppley said. "Our current bank account is $86."

The Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance updated a crowd of 90 people on their progress at a meeting on November 19 at Tolt Middle School.

The alliance is also calling for a basin-wide study of the Snoqualmie River.

205 project

In 2005, the corps of engineers completed a similar project at the falls – the 205 project. The corps removed material from both sides of the river. This will raise downstream floodwaters in a 100-year-flood by about an inch, according to a fact sheet the corps published for the project. That number is based on a 1996 study by Tukwila-based Northwest Hydraulic Consultants.

That’s the same impact that building another city the size of Snoqualmie upstream of the falls would have on the Lower Valley, said Ed McCarthy, the preservation alliance’s hydrologic consultant.

The purpose of the project was to lower flood depths in the city of Snoqualmie. Despite the project, Snoqualmie has also experienced record flooding in three of the last five years.

Flooding and the local economy

Flooding puts dairy farmers underwater both literally and financially. Jason Roetcisoender of Green Acres Dairy is from a family of dairy farmers who have been in the Valley since 1913, but it’s getting harder to stay. His family lost $200,000 in the 2009 flood, he said. In the 1990 flood, he lost 120 cows.

"We’re still bailing out from that," he said. "The dairy farmers are all moving to Eastern Washington."

To weather future storms, many Valley farmers have constructed raised "critter pads," or dirt berms to protect animals and equipment during flooding.

The 2009 flood cost John Groshell, owner of Snoqualmie Falls Golf Course in Fall City, $460,000, he said. The flood dumped three feet of sand and silt over a large part of his golf course.

"An inch does matter," he said. "The last flood might not have gotten you, but if the dam is lowered, the next one might."

In some areas of the Lower Valley, an extra inch of water can mean losing access to emergency services, said Dave Casey, owner of Changing Seasons farm.

A total of 14,500 acres of farmland in the Snoqualmie Valley is a designated Agricultural Production District with the goal of keeping it in farming.

"A very valuable regional resource is in crisis because of increased flooding," Casey said. "If we can’t grow food due to flooding, then this doesn’t have value."

Should Valley residents expect flooding in this season? Probably, but not because of Puget Sound Energy’s project. A temporary dam is in place upstream of the falls and the new, lower dam won’t be finished until next summer.

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