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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Cascade Rambles: Into the North Fork Canyon where a hydro project is planned

By Rick McGuire
This article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Wild Cascades

    Regular readers of The Wild Cascades may recall reports in previous issues about the threat posed to the lower North Fork Snoqualmie river by Black Canyon Hydro, an entity proposing to divert the waters of the North Fork out of their natural course through a canyon at the northwestern base of Mount Si and into a pipe and powerhouse to produce a small amount of hydroelectricity.
Low-power hydro projects such as the Black Canyon proposal are a threat to many streams in the Cascades. A number have been built already, with many more proposed. They produce very little in the way of energy but can do a lot of harm. Rivers and creeks above barriers to salmon migration, such as the North Fork Snoqualmie above Snoqualmie Falls, are especially at risk.
    The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the licensing body for such projects. FERC had recently approved the construction of two of these projects on tributaries of the North Fork, Calligan and Hancock creeks. Another existing project is on Rachor Creek, just above the North Fork canyon where this new project is proposed. If the Black Canyon project is approved, it will mean four such projects very close to one another in the North Fork watershed, with no analysis of the cumulative effects of diverting so much water into pipes.
    Proponents always argue that these projects are small and not very significant. But just about every place in the Cascades where water flows downhill is potentially at risk from these schemes. One here, one there, may not make much difference. But added up across the whole landscape, they make a very big difference.
    One need only to look at Switzerland to see the end result of building hydro projects everywhere they can be built. Water flowing downhill in a creek or river bed is a seldom seen sight there. Just about every stream is diverted into a pipe. A few waterfalls are partially turned on to please tourists in a few beauty spots on summer afternoons. But other than that, falling water is not part of the Swiss landscape. The sound of rushing water is not heard.
    The Black Canyon project on the North Fork Snoqualmie is a particularly bad proposal that would fly in the face of several protective designations. Part of the North Fork that would be dewatered is within the Mt. Si Natural Resource Conservation Area (NRCA), Washington state’s near-equivalent of Wilderness for state managed lands. NRCAs are established to protect natural values, and it is hard to see how dewatering a river is consistent with those goals.
    The stretch of the North Fork in question has also been designated as an area protected from hydroelectric development by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, an entity established by Congress to plan and direct power development and conservation across the Northwest. 
New hydropower development is allowed in protected river reaches only if it can provide some sort of extraordinary environmental benefit. It is hard to see how this project could do so. 
NWPCC’s designations do not carry force of law, but FERC has so far never approved a project on any river reach protected by them. 
     The North Fork Snoqualmie canyon is not easy to get to. Houses crowd up to its downstream end, walling off public access to the Mt. Si NRCA beyond. The Department of Natural Resources has an administrative (not public) access easement over some nearby private lands. I had previously explored much of the forest along the rim of the canyon, but never gone down into it. DNR’s new Natural Areas manager was interested in seeing the canyon, so we set off late one hot afternoon in early August to get an idea of what is at stake.
    The way in across the easement is a circuitous one, requiring first a hike uphill on an old logging road, then a drop down through the woods to the North Fork canyon. We took off up the old road through the early August heat, checking out the status of some holly removal we had done earlier in the year (satisfactory, but more work needed away from the road.)
It wasn’t long before we had to leave the old road and go downhill. Most of this part of Mt. Si is comprised of talus fans below big rock walls above. The talus slopes are mostly forested with attractive, mature second growth, probably 80 or so years old. There is even a patch of that rarest of the rare, old-growth Douglas fir, that escaped the early logging, with trees more than 500 years old, though our route down into the canyon did not take us that way. Other nearby slopes have groves of picturesque, wide spreading bigleaf maples, similar to those that John Muir wrote about when he visited the Snoqualmie valley sometime around 1889.
    Although the talus slopes look like woods, not talus, from afar, they feel like talus when you walk on them. A dense undergrowth of sword fern makes it difficult to see where your feet are going. You have to literally feel your way along, and hope that you don’t end up in a hole. It doesn’t make for easy walking. We came across a dry, rocky streambed, and decided to follow it down for a ways since it offered a way to see where we were stepping. The map said we needed to lose about 700 feet of elevation into the canyon. The streambed took us part way, and where it veered off and got too steep we left it in order to follow the lowest gradient route down.
    The bottom part of the route took us down through some very impressive second growth on a sort of ramp that seemed to offer the one way into the canyon that wasn’t very steep. The river and canyon make a series of twists and turns, and we followed a route down into the inside of a “U” bend where we thought we could reach the river without too much trouble. We went out almost to the end of the bend, turned left, dropped down a final slope through some brush and found ourselves standing on the North Fork riverbed.
    Here we were, finally, along the North Fork in the canyon that would be dewatered should the Black Canyon hydro project be built. We decided to walk upstream and see what we could see. River gage reports were that the North Fork was flowing at about 38 cfs, near an all-time minimum. That didn’t sound like much before we left, but now that we were really there it looked like a lot more water than I thought it would. The riverbed got rockier and rockier, and the pools deeper. Before we left, we had imagined that with the hot weather we might possibly wade or even swim across pools if we had to. But down in the real canyon, the river soon curved away into deep shade. There was a distinctly cool, even chilly current of air coming down the canyon for what had seemed earlier like a really hot day. Getting wet did not seem like a good idea, so we went as far as we could before deep pools blocked the way.
    As befits a rainforest canyon, everything was draped in green. Big second-growth trees lined both sides, even the northwest, non-DNR, non-NRCA side where it looked like forest practice regulations had kept former owner Weyerhaeuser from logging right down to the river, though the cutting came close to it. 
On that other side of the river we saw where water from Canyon Springs, located somewhere up the slope, came pouring down in surprising volume. Somewhere up above us was a pipeline taking water from the springs to supply part of the City of Snoqualmie’s needs.

    With our upstream progress stopped, we turned around and followed the river back down below where we had first reached it, to where we were again halted by deep pools. We could see ahead where the river dropped away. We briefly considered whether it would be wise to forge on and follow the river down, taking our chances on coming out in someone’s back yard, since there was no other practical way up and out other than the way we had come down. But the lateness of the hour, after 5 p.m., the cool current of air, and the uncertainty of what and who we would find led us to go back up the way we came.
    So, somewhat reluctantly, we turned around. “Normal” hikes go uphill on the way “in” and downhill on the way “out.” Here we had to go back up on the way out and regain the 700 feet of elevation we had lost coming down off the old road, battling up through the sword fern and wondering where our feet might stop. We again found the dry streambed and followed it up partway to where it started looking too steep and scary, then went back into the talus/woods. I have to admit that the old road was a welcome sight, marking as it did the end of an arduous if not very long climb.
From there on it was all downhill, an easy stroll compared to the sword fern climb. We hadn’t been able to explore as much of the canyon as we had wanted to, but we had managed to make it there and back. DNR’s defense of its Natural Resource Conservation Area here could be critical, and at least now their Natural Areas manager could speak with the authority of having actually been there, always a worthwhile thing.
    Not just NCCC but a number of other conservation groups will be watching this proposal closely. To the north, at Sunset Falls on the South Fork Skykomish river, Snohomish P.U.D. is trying to build a low-power hydro project. It too is in a NWPCC-protected reach. The “extraordinary benefit” in that case appears to be an offer to pay for continued operation of a trap and haul facility, where anadromous fish are captured below Sunset Falls and trucked and released upstream for spawning in river reaches above the falls where they never occurred naturally. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says it can no longer afford to operate the trap and haul.
    Not everyone thinks that the trap and haul is really an environmental benefit. The introduced anadromous fish displaced resident fish populations. Eagles once nested along the South Fork Sky and fed on resident trout. They no longer do so, but they do scavenge salmon carcasses in winter. Gains were offset by losses.
    At least a case is being made for “benefits” on the South Fork Sky, even if it is a poor one. 
It is hard to see what possible benefits can be claimed for taking water out of the North Fork Snoqualmie. Yet the proponents forge ahead, acting as if the NRCA and NWPCC designations mean nothing.
    Do they know something that the rest of us don’t? Hard to say, but it seems very strange. If they can build this project despite it being within a state Natural Resource Conservation Area, and a NW Power and Conservation Council protected river reach, then truly no place is safe, and we could see proposals even within National Parks and Wilderness areas. The Black Canyon Hydro proposal is a test case if ever there was one. If they can build one here, they can, and will, build them everywhere water runs downhill, and we could see the end of cascades in The Cascades.