Hydropower dam battle shapes up on the North Fork

A proposed hydropower project on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River faced resistance on several fronts at a series of public meetings in North Bend June 19.

Lobbyists from American Whitewater and Save the Sky River spoke against the proposed Black Canyon Hydropower project, as well as the property owners likely to be affected, and non-stakeholders, as well. Susan Wilkins, a Redmond geologist, was curious about the project, and brought her young son to the meetings with her, to learn more about the project, now in its pre-application phase.

“I have a lot of questions, but I want to see the virtual tour before I ask any,” Wilkins said, just before the second meeting of the day began.

This meeting, unlike the morning and evening sessions facilitated by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff, was led by Black Canyon project manager Alex Grant and engineer Chris Spens. They showed video of the stretch of river targeted for the project and renderings of the proposed project area, although no final locations have been determined.

Black Canyon Hydro, LLC, a branch of Whitewater Engineering Corporation, has proposed to install an inflatable dam on the North Fork, about four miles northeast of North Bend, below the Black Creek tributary. The 156-foot-long dam, expandable to up to seven feet high, would divert a portion of the main channel into an 8,200-foot underground pipe, which would feed a powerhouse 2.4 river miles downstream, to generate about 25 megawatt hours of electricity.

The project would divert between 450 and 900 cubic feet per second from the main channel for power generation, and return the “de-energized” water to the main channel via a 150-foot long tailrace, Spens said, at a “modest flow. It’s not going to move the channel around, per se. The maximum amount of water that would move through the powerhouse would only represent about one-sixth of the high flow in the spring.”

River flows were the main concern of the recreational users, who wanted to protect the unique assets of the North Fork.

Thom O’Keefe, a stewardship director with American Whitewater, explained that the North Fork is one of the few Class V rapids in the state, and the only one so close to a major metropolitan area, with such easy access from I-90.

“There are very few places in this country that have that kind of access,” he said. “Despite that proximity, it has a very remote and wild character to it.”

Also, he said, since the North Fork has a lower elevation, “it flows on winter events, and also during the spring snowmelt,” giving the river “a very high number of boatable days.”

He was gratified to see so many kayakers at the meeting, but both he and Spens commented on the relatively small turnout from local residents.

“I think the local community was modestly represented,” Spens said, but added that the response so far has been fairly normal. He felt the meetings’ structure as more of a question-and-answer session than a simple public hearing was helpful to everyone, and he appreciated the group’s courtesy and willingness to listen.

Of the local people represented, several were the property owners who would be most immediately affected. Since all the land in the project area is privately held, Black Canyon would have to negotiate with and purchase access rights and/or land from the property owners.

No final locations have been determined for the project, which is still in the pre-application stage, but three properties are likely to be affected by the dam, the powerhouse, or the 4.2 miles of electrical power lines that the project will require.

Representatives of the properties expressed strong opposition to the project.

“I just wish they weren’t even there,” said Marjorie Kinch, who was speaking for her parents, Fred and Viola Marshall. They didn’t attend for health reasons, but Kinch, an Oregon resident,  was their representative.

“The concerns of all of us, the entire family, is that, who wants a powerhouse on your property? I grew up out there and am quite environmentally concerned, regardless of whose property this project would go on,” she said.

Speaking for herself, Kinch added that she’d grown up on the property,  and “I just have been in love with that river all my life, and I just don’t want it to change. To me enough damage has been done by bad logging practices.”

Spens noted that the project could proceed over the property-owners’ objections, if FERC granted the Black Canyon permit, and allowed the company to acquire the property access through eminent domain. However, he said, that this was extremely unlikely.

“We’ve never actually done it,” he said.

FERC will continue to take public comments on the initial scoping of the project through Tuesday, July 24. Following the comment period, the agency will determine dates for the next series of public meetings.

For more information, or to submit comments, visit and search for Black Canyon Hydro, or project number: 14110.


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