Sultan River Whitewater Opportunities to Begin (WA)
By: Thomas O'Keefe
On Saturday April 25th, Snohomish PUD will be providing a whitewater recreational opportunity on the Upper Sultan River. This class IV gorge is a great piece of whitewater in a spectacular setting. Water will be released from Culmback Dam as it has been in recent years as a condition of the hydropower license for the project requiring process flows. These periodic high flows were designed to benefit the overall health of the river. What is different this year, is that the event will be scheduled on a weekend with advance notice to allow whitewater paddlers to take advantage of the opportunity.
To take advantage of this opportunity, paddlers will need to sign up in advance with Snohomish PUD (a minimum of six paddlers need to commit). Their whitewater recreation web page provides a sign up link and video clips of the various river reaches.
We are not yet certain what the flow will be. For this first release we will have plenty of water for a quality experience but it will likely be towards the lower end of the optimal range. For future releases we will have a water budget to work with and can make decisions on how to use that water to either extend the time of a release or elevate the flow.
Not many people have been in the gorge since the flow study in 2007, so those who want to experience this place need to have solid class IV creeking experience. The gorge is extremely remote with limited access and wood hazards are present. Please approach the run with caution and if you are unsure of your abilities, it would be best to wait for some first-hand reports and take advantage of a future opportunity.
How We Got Here
After the enlargement of Culmback Dam in 1984, whitewater recreation on the Upper Sultan River largely ceased. Old timers would tell tales of epic trips and once every few years the reservoir would fill overtopping the spillways to create a spectacular class IV whitewater run through an 11 mile gorge. As early as 1980, the Washington Kayak Club advocated for accommodations for whitewater recreation as mitigation for enlargement of the dam, but these requests were ignored as the utility instead focused on reservoir-based recreation and such events as the International Electric Boat Regatta (combustion engines are prohibited because the reservoir serves as a municipal water supply).
Over the years American Whitewater advocated for a recreation plan that included whitewater boating, and our opportunity came with the start of the relicensing process for their hydropower project that began in 2004. While Snohomish PUD was initially reluctant to address whitewater recreation, a couple dozen boaters made a strong showing at the first public meeting greatly outnumbering all other interest who attended. Federal regulators took notice and wrote to the utility in the spring of 2006:
Project operations affect flows in an 11-mile-long reach of the Sultan River that could be used for whitewater boating if sufficient flows were available. After reviewing the information presented in the Pre-Application Document and the comments provided during the February 27 and 28 scoping meetings, we have identified a gap between existing information and the information needed to conduct the required analysis. We need to know the range of flows that would provide whitewater boating opportunities in the project bypassed reach of the Sultan River.
With this encouragement from federal regulators and the constant presence of local volunteer Andy Bridge at dozens of meetings, Snohomish PUD ultimately accepted that we weren’t going to disappear and a spirit of collaboration slowly began to build. On a rainy weekend in October 2007, Snohomish PUD held the whitewater flow study and while we had 15 formal participants as outlined in the study plan, boaters have a pretty good nose for a unique opportunity, and plenty more came out to enjoy the experience of the study releases from Culmback Dam.
With the data in hand, and after a couple more years of meetings, our discussions ultimately culminated in a settlement agreement in October 2009 with the utility, resource agencies and tribe. Working together we developed one of the more innovative flow regimes for any project we have worked on. The flows provide attraction flows for returning salmon, outmigration flows for juvenile salmon, and a whole range of process flows—flushing, channel maintenance, and channel forming—to benefit overall river health. Using techniques from the social sciences and our data from the recreational flow study, we were able to overlay these ecosystem needs with recreational flow needs to develop a plan to benefit all interests: hydropower generation, municipal water supply, salmon and resident fish, and whitewater recreation.
Some more time was required for federal regulators to review the whole agreement and a license was issued in September 2011. The first requirement before the utility could offer recreational opportunities was construction of a new trail into the Sultan River Gorge. Some may remember climbing down an informal social trail used by miners that was steep and badly eroded as it crossed over and under logs and down steep eroded clay banks. The trail was finally completed in the summer of 2014 and meets Forest Service trail standards. It is still a walk into the gorge but it is now much easier.