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Snoqualmie Falls (WA)

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The Powerhouse Run on the Snoqualmie River is one of the most treasured assets for whitewater paddlers in Western Washington, convenient to a population of over 2 million people. The river is less than an hour drive from downtown Seattle, making it a popular after work destination. The whitewater is Class II and only a mile in length, making it the region's best beginner training site, and one where you can easily jog the shuttle. Although the run is short, there are several excellent features for instruction, making it possible to spend hours on the water; whenever you've had enough for the day, it is always a short paddle back to the car from anywhere on the run. In short, it is an ideal teaching site, with several kayak schools, clubs, and a number of local businesses that depend on whitewater recreation and the resources this particular river provides.

The runs start at the base of Snoqualmie Falls, a dramatic and awe inspiring 268 foot waterfall, and the second most popular natural attraction in Washington State after Mount Rainier. Well over a million visitors come to the site each year. The power from the falls has been harnessed for hydroelectricity since 1898. Flows that bypass the falls are run through one of two powerhouses operated by Puget Sound Energy (PSE): Powerplant 1 is located in the bedrock near the base of the falls and Powerplant 2 is located a short distance downstream just around the corner from the falls. The project has the ability to divert 2500 cfs and on an annual basis approximately 65% of the river's natural flow is diverted. In all but the driest summer months, however, there is generally enough water for paddlers both upstream of Powerplant 2 in the bypass reach and downstream below the tailrace.

American Whitewater and local affiliate clubs invested significant resources in this license proceeding given the importance of the Powerhouse Run for training and instruction. Our interest was in preserving access to the rapid just upstream of Powerplant 2 which serves as a natural classroom with a generous eddy where beginners can enter the water. Paddlers can practice on a couple of strong jets of current and many of the region's paddlers have learned the basics of peel outs and eddy turns at this site. A second access was available on the downstream side of Powerhouse 2 but it was challenging to negotiate the shoreline rip rap, a situation we were interested in improving. Unfortunately, FERC made a determination that the access upstream of Powerhouse 2 was not safe, through a safety finding that happened outside of the regular licensing process. FERC formally ordered the boardwalk upstream of the powerhouse to be redesigned to discourage river access. PSE did significantly improve the access on the downstream side of the powerhouse, which was opened to the public in 2013.

Background and History

On November 25, 1991, Puget Sound Power & Light Company (later changed to PSE) filed an application pursuant to sections 4(e) and 15 of the Federal Power Act (FPA) for a new license authorizing the continued operation and maintenance of the 44.4-megawatt (MW) Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Project No. 2493 (Snoqualmie Project), located on the Snoqualmie River, in the City of Snoqualmie, King County, Washington. The original license for the Snoqualmie Project was issued on May 13, 1975, effective as of March 1, 1956. That license expired on December 31, 1993.

As the long relicensing process began, whitewater paddlers raised concerns regarding the future of river access at the project. Several different scenarios were explored by the utility including a major expansion of the project. At the same time the Snoqualmie Tribe expressed a strong desire to retire the project, noting their strong spiritual ties to the river and a desire that the full flow of the river be allowed to flow over the falls.

Brooke Drury, at the time the Hydropower Coordinator for Rivers Council of Washington and subsequent to that an American Whitewater board member, filed comments on behalf of whitewater recreation. Rich Bowers, American Whitewater's Conservation Director at the time, also participated in a site visit and public meeting prior to the publication of the Final EIS. Additionally, many members of affiliate clubs including the Washington Kayak Club, Paddle Trails Canoe Club, University Kayak Club, and The Mountaineers attended public meetings and filed comments. Primary concerns were protecting public access to the river and maintenance of flows in the bypass channel between the falls and Powerplant 2.

In her comments filed in January 1995, Brooke noted, “Under current circumstances, the put-in for the Powerhouse Run (just below and just above Plant 2) is adequate. This may not remain the case once new construction starts on the project as proposed by Puget (and as recommended in the DEIS).” Given this concern over the future of river access, FERC responded in the Final EIS (published in September 1996) that the preferred alternative was “not expected to significantly restrict boater access to the river”.

Given this understanding that access to the river would not be significantly reduced or altered, the whitewater community waited as several years passed while PSE continued to work towards obtaining a license for the project.

With a license decision still pending in 2002, FERC's safety office in Portland ordered PSE to reconstruct their boardwalk upstream of Powerplant 2 to create a barrier to river access all along the river on the upstream side of the powerhouse. This action, running counter to the decision to preserve access as published in the Final EIS, was taken with no public or agency consultation, despite the fact that the FEIS states: “WDNR owns the riverbed up to the natural high-water mark, therefore, much of the shoreline is located on public lands that are available for public use”. Paddlers were unaware of the implications of this order by FERC until after construction activity was already underway in 2003.

As construction activity around the powerhouse began to ramp up as part of maintenance activities and in apparent anticipation of a new license, paddlers began to express concerns regarding the future of river access and whether a new license would incorporate the important public river access as described in the FEIS. PSE invited paddlers to the river on March 20th, 2004 and completed a site visit with representatives from American Whitewater, Washington Kayak Club, PaddleTrails Canoe Club, The Mountaineers, and University Kayak Club. Discussions with PSE were positive and representatives from the company expressed a strong willingness to work with the whitewater community in continuing to provide public access through construction of a new road and replacement of a runner in one of the turbines. The work limited access at certain times, but PSE made a strong commitment to minimize disruptions to access and kept the boating community informed. At the same time they noted that any decisions related to the details of river access and safety issues were in the hands of FERC. PSE followed up with a second meeting and discussion of the project with representatives from local clubs that was hosted by The Mountaineers on March 24th.

On April 1st, 2004 American Whitewater filed a comment on the directives issued by the FERC safety office in Portland that ordered reconstruction of the boardwalk and created barriers to access that conflict with the terms and conditions originally outlined in the Final EIS. While the comment was entered in the public record, the whitewater community no longer had formal standing in the proceeding, since the Rivers Council of Washington no longer existed as an organization; in January 2004, they formally withdrew from the proceedings. On May 26th, 2004 American Whitewater filed a motion of late intervention. The basis for our intervention was that whitewater recreation interests had been previously represented in the proceeding by Rivers Council of Washington and on June 25th, American Whitewater's request for intervenor status was granted.

On June 29th, 2004, FERC issued an order issuing a new 40 year license for the Snoqualmie Falls project. Unfortunately conditions in the new license are less than favorable to whitewater boaters. Instead of protecting the access that was recognized in the FEIS and utilized by whitewater paddlers for many years, the new license formally closed access upstream of the powerhouse. Specifically the license states the following:

American Whitewater notes that kayakers and pedestrians have used a 20-foot gap in two sections of boardwalk as an informal access point to reach the bypassed reach just upstream of Powerhouse 2, but that in 2002 the Commission's Regional Office directed that the gap be spanned with a section of boardwalk, high railings, and chain-link fencing, preventing further such use. American Whitewater argues that recreational concerns mandate either that an environmental review precede this change or that the informal access be restored. The informal access at the location upstream of Powerhouse 2 was eliminated as a safety measure. Moreover, such access would be disruptive to Snoqualmie religious practices. However, the new license requires construction of an access point immediately downstream of Powerhouse 2, which will improve boating opportunities in the area without endangering safety or intruding upon Snoqualmie religious practices.

Unfortunately, FERC never discussed how this determination based on safety was made. There is also no evidence in the public record that this access disrupts Snoqualmie religious practices, and follow up conversations with the tribe confirm that this is a misrepresentation of the tribe's position (their issue is restoration of flows to the river and providing access for “all people, for all time”). Further, eliminating a key access site and constructing an alternative access on the downstream side of the powerhouse does not “improve” boating opportunities. In fact an access is already available at this location and utilized when flows above the powerhouse in the bypass reach are too low. Boating opportunities would not be improved but instead will be lost.

On July 28th, 2004 American Whitewater filed a request for rehearing on the issue of access upstream of the Powerhouse. Unfortunately our issues were not resolved and FERC ordered the recreational developments to proceed with no accommodations for whitewater boaters on the upstream side of Powerhouse 2. PSE reconstructed Powerhouse 2 and developed a new recreation site that includes a naturally-landscaped carry-in boat access on the downstream side of Powerplant 2 area, a restroom, and an improved parking area. The new site was developed in consultation with American Whitewater and opened to the public in the spring of 2013. Determined boaters can still access the river upstream of Powerhouse 2, but this practice is formally discouraged. It is one the best sites for instruction, but if you use it be cool and be discrete.

Snoqualmie Powerhouse Run, New Access Opens (WA)

10/23/2013 - by Thomas O'Keefe

After more than three years of waiting the access to the Powerhouse run on the Snoqualmie River is now open for public use. While this is a short run of less than a mile, it is a popular and important section of river less than 30 miles from Seattle.

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