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Sultan River (WA) Summer Release Update

Posted: 07/19/2019
by Thomas O'Keefe

At American Whitewater we are always seeking opportunities to restore rivers while also enhancing recreational opportunities. Sometimes our initial ideas can be refined and improved upon and we recently had that experience on the Sultan River.

When we signed a settlement with Snohomish PUD and other parties for a hydropower license that was issued in 2011, we reached an agreement that we hoped would provide 4 days of recreational boating opportunities every year through a water budget that we negotiated. When those 4 days would occur was always a point of intense discussion that included balancing a myriad of interests and issues including timing of fish runs (spawning, rearing, and outmigration), economics of hydropower generation, timing of water availability, and the simple fact that most boaters enjoy an opportunity to get out when the weather is nice (bonus if it happens to be a time of year when few other options exist).

We ultimately decided to schedule two ecological process flows in the spring (May) and fall (early September) that are scheduled on weekends and provide great whitewater paddling. We thought we could provide two more days during the winter when major storm systems move through the region. The concept with these opportunistic boating days in winter was that we could find days when the Sultan has natural inflow from side tributaries following a heavy rain; during these times, dam operators could provide a modest supplement to provide a boatable flow. The challenge has been trying to predict these systems on 48 hours notice and then rallying folks for a boating opportunity-when it happens on a weekday (70% probability) it's even more challenging. We consistently received feedback from the paddling paddling community: "we have an abundance of boating options during winter storms and spring snow melt; can't we get an opportunity to enjoy the Sultan in the summer?"

We sat down with the utility and took at look at the water budget. Ultimately we determined that instead of keeping water in our water budget to supplement natural flows in the dark winter months, we could take that water and use it to provide another opportunity in late summer. We sat down with resource agencies that manage fishery resources, the utility, and the Tulalip Tribe to see if we could make it work. After a few meetings and discussions we came to consensus that we could provide another opportunity in August-a time of year when boating opportunities in the Skykomish watershed are limited. The opportunity comes with a few caveats, the most significant being that we need sufficient water in the reservoir. The whitewater boating opportunities don't use much water and provide an ecological benefit but the water is also used for drinking water so that will be a consideration. Ultimately however we believe we will be able to provide this new summer opportunity in most years. Earlier this year the utility submitted the proposed changes on behalf of the whitewater boating community to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

On June 27th we received a Director's Order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with the following statement:

"The licensee's proposed amendment to the Whitewater Recreation Plan would improve whitewater boating opportunities on the Sultan River while protecting aquatic and other environmental resources at the project. For these reasons, and the fact that no agencies or entities object to the licensee's proposal, the licensee's proposed amendment to its Whitewater Recreation Plan should be approved."

We are now working to see if we can provide this new opportunity this summer. As local paddlers know, the water ran out a little earlier than usual on most of the local whitewater runs so we will need to see where things stand in August. If we have sufficient water available, we hope to make it happen.

Link to Full Order

Thomas O'Keefe
3537 NE 87th St.
Seattle, WA 98115
Phone: 425-417-9012


Associated Rivers

Sultan WA
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