Did salmon actually use the Skagit River before the Seattle dams were built?

The public utility’s license renewal to operate the dams centers on the answer to this question.

Beneath the city of Seattle’s Gorge Dam an unnatural silence reigns. This stretch of the Skagit River, known as the bypass reach, is a sacred gateway to the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe’s Valley of the Spirits. But now it’s completely dry, as the city diverts the river into a three-mile-long tunnel through a mountain to a power-generating facility below. Gorge Dam is the lowermost of the three large dams in the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project; the other two, Diablo and Ross, lie upstream. Together, they form the Skagit hydroelectric project and provide 20% of the energy Seattle City Light, the city’s public utility, produced in 2021.

The utility is applying for a new license to operate the dams which, if granted, could remain in effect for the next 50 years. But the process has come up against a seemingly simple question with huge implications: Did salmon, steelhead and trout ever actually use the river above these dams? If they did, the city may be required to provide access to the fish habitat above. 


Seattle City Light, which has had a monopoly on energy in the city since 1951, has argued that the fish never accessed the stretches of the river where its dams and reservoirs now stand, at least not in significant numbers, and that because of this, the utility should not be required to take on the major infrastructure work of adding fish passage. However, a chorus of people, from federal agencies to tribal nations and their biologists, have offered up formidable evidence to the contrary, citing historical records, tribal histories and research, federal agency findings — even newspaper stories from the time the dams were being constructed in the early 1920s — which suggest fish did ascend the river, and that today they may need access to that habitat in order to survive. 

If the dams were taken down or fish passage installed, Indigenous nations could see fish return to traditional fishing grounds and endangered species that rely on the river could be restored. 

Gorge Dam is the lowest of the three dams on the Skagit River. Thirty-seven percent of the Skagit River Basin lies above Gorge Dam and likely provides suitable habitat for anadromous species, but they are currently unable to reach it.
David Moskowitz


SALMON, STEELHEAD AND bull trout have long been critical to Indigenous people, both for nutritional and cultural purposes. The Sauk-Suiattle Indian Tribe, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe all hold treaty-guaranteed fishing rights that were impacted by the dams. What’s more, bull trout, Puget Sound chinook salmon, steelhead and southern resident killer whales, all of which depend on the Skagit, have been listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act since the dams were last licensed in 1995.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) oversees the licensing process; however, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which are responsible for upholding treaty rights and recovering endangered species, can require the city to fund and construct fish passage as a part of it. In 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service stated that 37% of the Skagit River Basin lies above Gorge Dam and likely provides suitable habitat for salmon and steelhead, adding that fish passage is “integral for achieving population-level improvements for these species.”

In its recently submitted draft license application, Seattle City Light appeared willing to provide fish passage through Gorge Dam, but not through the other two dams. The utility insists that most fish never made it above the area where the dams were built, pointing to early settler reports and ethnographic, archaeological, genetic and geological studies. Much of that evidence, however, has come under scrutiny, including several news stories that have found serious discrepancies in the claims. Seattle City Light hydro-licensing manager Chris Townsend claimed that local place names prove that “fish did not pass further than Diablo (Canyon),” although he did not identify which names he was referring to nor respond to requests to clarify this claim. He also said that the archaeological sites inundated by the dams did not reveal any evidence of anadromous species. The utility has also pointed to a study that found bull trout differ genetically above and below the dams. However, the Fish and Wildlife Service has cast serious doubt on these findings. The National Park Service agreed, calling Seattle City Light’s conclusion “contrary to the current state of the science.” 

Stetattle Creek’s spawning habitat in the North Cascades is blocked by the Gorge Dam. Evidence shows fish used to spawn in this creek prior to the Gorge Dam installation, but Seattle City Light argues to the contrary.
David Moskowitz

Seattle City Light has also cited a 1921 report from the University of Washington that salmon and steelhead didn’t “seem” to ascend above the bypass reach, although they exclude statements that explicitly state no actual barriers to fish migration existed in the area the city built its three dams. In fact, construction activities at the Gorge Dam site were likely already blocking fish by 1920, before the report was published. Also absent from the utility’s FERC filings is the disclaimer that the fisheries professors made at the start of their report: “The survey must be considered as superficial. It would take very much more time than was spent to make anything like a thorough investigation of the waters covered.” 

The utility has said that the stretch of the river known as Diablo Canyon, between Gorge Dam and Diablo Dam, was too difficult for fish to pass through. But in a pre-1918 Whatcom County publication called the Washington Hatchet, a supervisor is said to have paddled a canoe through the canyon at low water, “there being no surface current,” which indicates that fish probably could have made it through as well. The Upper Skagit Tribe believes that salmon migration was likely timed to coincide with similar low-water conditions in late summer or winter, when flows tend to be lower. The Park Service’s own FERC filings, along with those of the Upper Skagit Tribe, indicate that Diablo Canyon was passable to salmon and steelhead. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service put it bluntly in 2020: “(Seattle City Light) has not cited actual data identifying historical fish passage barriers within the Project area.” Yet the utility has refused to walk back its claims, even in its recently submitted draft license application.

The Upper Skagit Tribe, whose traditional homelands encircle the hydroelectric project, said that, according to tribal oral traditions, there was nothing to block the fish prior to the dams, although “by the early 1900s, overharvest had greatly reduced the populations and body sizes of anadromous salmonids in the Skagit River basin,” reducing the number of fish observers might have seen at the time.

What’s more, the fish themselves have defied Seattle City Light’s claims: Biologists from the Upper Skagit Tribe and the federal agencies involved in the FERC relicensing have observed salmon and steelhead in various life stages in the very areas below Gorge Dam that Seattle City Light has claimed they couldn’t reach, even as the utility keeps the stretch largely dewatered.

Gorge, Diablo and Ross dams form the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project and provide 20% of the energy for Seattle City Light, the city’s public utility. Seattle City Light is pushing back on providing fish passage through all three dams, blaming the high cost and supposed lack of available habitat.
David Moskowitz

Finally, the city’s own planning for the dams’ construction suggests that it understood the impacts the project would have on fish migration. State law mandates that dams that block the migration of salmon, steelhead and trout must include fish passage or a hatchery. And the city’s plans to build a hatchery are well-documented — an indication that it knew its dams would block migration. A March 16, 1920, article in The Seattle Daily Times details the city leaders’ decision-making: “If the hatchery was not built, the city would have to construct fish ways over all power dams in the Skagit River project to permit migrating salmon to reach spawning beds.” News articles from 1920 and 1921 reiterate that the dams would block salmon migration and that the city had decided to build a hatchery to mitigate that.

Yet Seattle City Light did not build the hatchery until two decades after the Gorge and Diablo dams were completed, and it apparently did so only after significant pressure from the state. A 1947 agreement signed by city and state officials and approved by the city council details the reasons the hatchery was necessary: “The construction of (the city’s) dams and the artificial fluctuation in the flow of the Skagit River caused by the operation thereof has resulted in destruction or damage to salmon, steelhead, and cut-throat trout owned by the State.” The city would have had to pay the state $54,950 for the hatchery.

A 1988 report commissioned by the city said that the hatchery wasn’t built because salmon and steelhead didn’t ascend the river in significant numbers. But historian David Wilma believes that financial concerns may have been the real reason for the delay: Seattle was under public pressure over its spending on the Skagit project and may not have been able to muster the capital until later.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would not comment, saying that the historical record regarding the hatchery wasn’t clear.

Scott Schuyler prepares a Chinook salmon for cooking at the Upper Skagit Tribes headquarters near Sedro Woolley, Washington. Salmon, steelhead and bull trout have long been critical to Indigenous people, both for nutritional and cultural purposes.
David Moskowitz


SIMILAR CONTRADICTIONS plague the question of fish passage today. Seattle City Light has stated publicly it will provide fish passage if necessary, but in private has allegedly stated that the price is too high. The utility didn’t respond directly to an emailed question regarding the apparent discrepancy. Scott Schuyler, Upper Skagit tribal elder and policy representative, told HCN that Seattle City Light is pushing back on providing fish passage through all three dams, blaming the high cost and supposed lack of available habitat. According to a letter to the city from the Skagit County Board of Commissioners, Seattle City Light representatives also told local officials that it plans to continue its practice of buying land in Skagit County to mitigate the impacts of its dams – a practice the county has banned. 

Financial filings also indicate those justifications may be misleading. According to an amendment to a $259.8 million municipal bond released in response to a lawsuit, providing fish passage, removing Gorge Dam or even both wouldn’t harm the  city’s ability to meet its long-term load projections and debt obligations

On Nov. 30, Seattle City Light filed its draft license application still clinging to its claims about the alleged historical barriers to fish, implying that it is unlikely to provide fish passage through its dams unless it is forced to do so. Comments will be accepted until April 30, 2023, when the utility must also submit its final license application. Meanwhile, Seattle City Light is behind on several research studies, including those regarding fish passage, according to the Fisheries Service. It remains to be seen whether Seattle City Light’s claims about fish passage will survive the process — and if the fish will endure as well. 

Rico Moore is a freelance journalist based in Port Townsend, Washington. Follow him on Mastodon @[email protected].

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