Falls plant powers up

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SNOQUALMIE - For more than 100 years Snoqualmie Falls has provided energy with a historic hydroelectric plant that many consider to be a marvel of engineering.

For even longer, the Falls has been a sacred site to the Snoqualmie Tribe, who see the mist coming from its base as lifting prayers to heaven.

Both will be finding a way to live with the other in the coming years after a ruling last week from the state's Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) allowed the plant's owner, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), to move ahead in its effort to relicense and continue operating the hydroelectric plant, which has a history as storied as the Falls.

The plant was the brainchild of Charles Baker, an industrious graduate of Cornell University who saw hydropower at Niagara Falls and the potential to bring it to Snoqualmie Falls. With financial help from his father, Baker blasted down through the hill the Snoqualmie River spills over and built the first Snoqualmie Falls hydroelectric plant in 1898. The plant he built was so stout that most of the major equipment brought to the site in the 19th century is still functioning today.

"From a technological standpoint, this was built to last," said Lloyd Pernela, manager of hydrolicensing for PSE.

It also works the same way. On both sides of the river are doors to two separate generators. Plant No. 1, on the southbank of the Snoqualmie River, is the oldest and plant No. 2, built on the northbank of the river in 1910, is around the bend in the river and can't be seen from the Falls.

The Snoqualmie River feeds into these mouths that allow water to drop hundreds of feet down pipes called penstocks, which are protected from debris and silt by dams and rakes. The water from the penstocks is fed to large tanks that encase turbines. Water from the penstocks is shot into the these tanks and quickly fill small buckets on the spokes of the turbines, causing it to turn a wheel outside of the tank. Large magnets on the wheel are moved by coils charged by an on-site exciter; creating electricity that is sent to surface power lines. Once the water is through the turbines, it is deposited back into the Snoqualmie River through a tailrace (discharge from the plant No. 1 tailrace can be seen by visitors as water shooting out near the bottom of the Falls).

While a lot of machinery is underground and out of sight, the natural impact of the plants can't be ignored. The turbines are hundreds of feet below the surface, but there are multiple structures above ground that can be seen on both banks of the Snoqualmie River. The structures on the southbank of the river dates back to the plant's first days and homes built on the hill above the plant still house plant employees.

In addition to the aesthetics of the area, the flow of the water has been changed as well. To ensure there was always a large enough pool of water to produce energy in low-flow months, the plant's engineers installed a dam right before the Falls; which is why water that starts to flow over the top is in a nice even stream before heading over the Falls' rocky crest. This dam makes sure there is a pool of water at least 16-feet deep that can feed the plant's penstocks. PSE wants to make this more efficient and has plans to dismantle the dam and replace it with large rubber weirs that will inflate and deflate with the change of river flow.

The Snoqualmie Tribe has long wanted to restore the sacred site back to its original flow and has kept a close eye on PSE's relicensing efforts. The plant's license expired in 1991, but it has operated on annual, temporary permits every year since. Along the way the Tribe has filed various motions protesting the relicensing of the plant, none of which have been acted on by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the organization responsible for relicensing the plant. The Tribe filed its most recent appeal last October with the state - after the state Department of Ecology (DOE) granted a water certification permit to the project - saying the certification violates a number of environmental and Native American religious freedom laws.

In additional to approving the DOE permit, the PCHB ruling last week called for some additional studies to investigate the impact the plant has on fish in the area. PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said that is only a detail and that PSE could soon expect FERC to issue its license, which could be granted for 30-50 years.

"We're pleased the hearing board affirmed the DOE issuance of the water quality permit," Thompson said. "We feel like we have a relationship with the Tribe and we expect to work with the Tribe in the future."

Although PSE got the ruling it wanted, Snoqualmie Tribe Administrator Matt Mattson said the ruling forced some issues to light regarding water and tribal law in Washington. The state PCHB called for additional studies regarding fish and for the minimum amount of water flow over the Falls to be increased from a minimum of 1,700 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 2,500 cfs.

More importantly, he said the state was asked to review its own environmental laws. Mattson said that although the state can't discriminate against the Tribe or PSE regarding use of the Falls, a ruling for PSE's use of the resource is a kind of discrimination against the Tribe. Mattson said the Clean Water Act should allow the Tribe to retain the Falls as a sacred site, a designation he said is undisputed. While the recreational and aesthetic value of the Falls is being protected, Mattson said the cultural and religious value of the area is not.

"It was a very complicated decision," Mattson said. "It remains a clash of world views."

Mattson said relations with PSE have improved over the past few years, but it hasn't changed the overall goal of the Tribe, which is to decommission the plant. Once the Tribe is on surer financial footing, Mattson said it would like to explore other options for decommission. He said the Tribe realizes that today's society needs power and that it may invest in wind power to supplement any loss of power from the plant. The Tribe could even consider buying the plant outright from PSE.

"It's all speculative at this point," Mattson said.

The Tribe can appeal the PCHB decision to King County Superior Court during the next month.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at

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