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Power of the North Fork: Plant builder, kayakers stake out issues on proposed Black Canyon hydropower project
Thom Fischer powers his truck up the rugged, stony road, past a racing waterfall, to a ledge that opens into an emerald panorama of the Valley floor hundreds of feet below.
Few people travel this route, a pitted logging road in the private Hancock Timber forest, or take in the view, gazing south to Snoqualmie's rooftops, west along the face of Mount Si—and in all directions over a sea of trees. Skyscrapers dot the far distance.
"You can see Seattle from up here," said Fischer.
President of Bellingham-based Tollhouse Power Company, Fischer knows the road well enough to predict the exact spot he'll lose cell coverage. He visits the heart of the 100,000-acre tree farm to regularly, checking on his company's 4-megawatt hydropower project, the Black Creek power plant.
But Fischer also has plans for the river below. A strip of whitewater in the distance marks the beginning of Tollhouse's newest project, the proposed 25-megawatt Black Canyon hydro plant on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in May announced receipt of Black Canyon's request for a preliminary permit, which would give the company priority in studying and preparing to build a plant. The company filed for the permit in March.
A 60-day public comment period was announced May 11 and runs through July 10.
The Tollhouse-owned Black Canyon hydroelectric project would put a 30-foot diversion dam across the river, channeling water into a mile-long tunnel. The penstocks would connect to two turbines at a power plant north of Ernie's Grove. Typical capacity would provide energy for about 13,700 homes, which Black Canyon would sell to Puget Sound Energy.
In their permit application, Black Canyon anticipates a slate of studies on topics ranging from tribal interests and history of land uses to hydrology and impacts on fish and wildlife, recreation and scenery. Those studies are expected to cost between $500,000 and $1 million and take three years to complete.
Fischer's optimistic estimate is that construction could begin in four years. He'd like to see that moment sped up, however, in order to meet what he describes as a nearing power crunch on the western United States.
"As long as people can walk over and flip on that light, they don't worry about it," he said. But Fischer says west coast power managers know otherwise.
"Our power grid isn't big enough for increased demand," he said. "We're underbuilt."
The diversion dam would not offer flood protection to downriver residents. Fischer said the company is considering an inflatable weir that would lower to release high flows.
Fischer contrasts the placid stretches of the North Fork downriver from the Black Canyon site with the whitewater along the project's length.
"It drops about 450 feet in a mile," he said.
That, Fischer says, means the stretch is infrequently accessible to only a few skilled kayakers.
To Thomas O'Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, the pristine state of that challenging mile of whitewater is something that needs to be protected.
"This is an expert run," he said. While it's true that "the casual river runner is not going to go out there right away—you have to have the skill set," O'Keefe describes the Black Canyon run as a "hugely valued" wilderness experience.
"It's one of the iconic destinations, less than an hour from downtown Seatttle," he said.
O'Keefe's organization, which represents kayakers, plans to offer serious opposition to the Black Canyon project.
"I think it's a terrible idea," he said.
His reasons include the river's proximity to the Mount Si Natural Resources Conservation Area, its recommendation as a Wild and Scenic River, its identification as a protected area by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, and King County's purchase of development rights of Hancock Forest land.
Government agencies and councils "have recognized the river for its conservation value," O'Keefe said.
"Hydropower comes at tremendous environmental cost," O'Keefe said. While the region derives much benefit from hydropower, O'Keefe adds that "we need to look carefully at new projects." He wants to see Washington's hydroelectric plants run more efficiently.
"There is a clearly recognized conservation value in play," O'Keefe said. "This is one of the most outstanding expert kayak runs in the region. The idea that you would dewater this thing for a private developer of a hydro plant is, frankly, unacceptable."
American Whitewater has posted a notice about the proposal, along with a video tour of the river, on its website.
With the plant proposed across the river from Washington Department of Natural Resources' Mount Si conservation area, the project surprises Doug McClelland, assistant manager for DNR's South Puget Sound Region.
"We never thought that was a type of use that you would see directly adjacent to the conservation area," McClelland said.
DNR plans to comment to FERC, emphasizing the wildness of the North Fork valley.
"It's all about the size and scale," McClelland said.
For his part, Fischer doesn't see much of a conflict with kayakers.
"We can work with them," he told the Record by e-mail. For example, Black Canyon could accommodate water levels in the bypass reach when they want to run the river.
"My guess is that there would be more available days at these flows after project operations than what exist today," Fischer stated.
"I am a whitewater rafter myself," he added.
According to Fischer, North Fork kayakers must cross private property to access the river.
"This access issue also needs to be worked out with Hancock Forest Management, who owns the property," he said.
Fischer urges critics of hydropower projects to read up on the technology (He suggests http://www.canyonhydro.com/resources.html) and describes his colleagues as "engineers who have dedicated their lives to efficient, clean energy."
"It's more responsible to do this kind of thing than light diesel on fire or send wheelbarrows full of money to the Middle East," he said. "There is enough resources in the United States to produce all of our own energy.
"Even in the richest places in the world, what separates a first-rate economic town from a town that's bankrupt is the price of power," Fischer added. "If you don't have cheap energy, you don't have an economy."
Finishing his drive, Fischer arrives at the 17-year-old Black Creek hydropower plant. There, a creek halts at a diversion dam before tumbling down a steep hill to a powerhouse far below before entering the North Fork.
Few people have seen this place, where cuttthroat trout jump in the reservoir, and insects buzz around the sluice grating.
"There are national security interests," Fischer said. "We are reluctant to show people these things."
Fischer's company didn't build this site; he manages it for Puget Sound Energy. But the principles are the same. Power plant design has evolved a lot in the last 17 years—Fischer points to some underwater debris near the sluice gate, and talks about how latest designs minimize its buildup. Every time a plant is built, he said, lessons are learned.
Pointing to the surrounding stands of fir, Fischer said he is struck by the local beauty around the project.
"Every single one of these is in an absolutely beautiful place," he said.
Fischer wants the project to work, to blend in with its surroundings.
"It's a measure of pride," Fischer said. "You want these things built right."
• The 60-day public comment period for the Black Canyon dam began May 11 and runs through July 10
Commenters can submit brief comments up to 6,000 characters, without prior registration, using FERC's eComment system at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/ecomment.asp
More information about this project, including a copy of the application, can be viewed at http://www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/elibrary.asp. Enter the docket number (P-14110-000) to access the document.