Skagit Hydro Project Relicensing

Pre-reservoir aerial photo of the upper Skagit River valley now occupied by Ross Lake, ca. 1931. -Patrick Goldsworthy collection

“The Price of Taming a River” – that’s the title of a 1997 environmental analysis of the harm done to the Duwamish River, but it could apply to the Skagit.

The Skagit River is the third largest river in the lower 48 States of the U.S. draining into the Pacific Ocean, second only to the Colorado and Columbia. And today, despite all human modifications to it and its tributary the Baker River (agriculture, development, diking, dredging, channeling, logging, mining and hydropower projects) the Skagit continues to host runs of all 5 anadromous salmonid species, a key indicator of its relative health. This is the story of how it was saved from further hydropower development.

The greatest permanent impact to the Skagit watershed has been hydropower development in the upper reaches located in the North Cascades. Trying to halt further hydro development and mitigate some of its impacts has been a central mission of N3C almost since it was formed. Mitigation of hydro projects is accomplished through the Federal licensing process.

“Reddi Kilowatt,” icon of electrification, is depicted chopping down a large tree in this graphic from the No High Ross Dam campaign. High Ross would have inundated a rare ancient forest in Big Beaver Creek valley. -Courtesy NPS Archives

Seattle City Light (SCL) operates the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, consisting of 3 dams in the midst of Washington’s North Cascades National Park (NOCA) and Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which it predates. It is licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which has oversight over all hydroelectric projects in the United States. By the time the National Park and Recreation Areas were created in 1968, the dams and reservoirs had already permanently altered the watershed’s hydrology and removed a large amount of its ancient forest to make way for reservoirs. The questions then were: how much more would City Light be allowed to do in the Skagit? Could other sources of power, along with greater efficiency, satisfy Seattle’s power demands instead? And what could be done about the damage the hydro project had already done?

Ross Lake reservoir during draw-down, ca. 1965, showing results of converting ancient forest to hydropower production, and what would become of Big Beaver valley if High Ross dam was built. -Joe and Margaret Miller collection

Since the Skagit hydro project began with its first timber crib dam in the Skagit River gorge above Newhalem in 1919, and despite numerous setbacks, City Light pursued a policy of continuous project expansion and enlargement. Three dams were built on the Skagit from 1919-1952 to supply Seattle with electric power, and more were proposed. Expansion continued, under the direction of the charismatic superintendent of City Light, J.D. Ross, for whom Ross Dam is named.

Comparison of current and proposed enlarged “High Ross” reservoirs (Click to enlarge)

City Light then announced its intention to execute the final, 3rd phase of Ross Dam construction known as “High Ross” and to build two more dams, one farther down the main stem Skagit (aka Copper Creek dam) and one on Thunder Creek, in about 1970.  At that time conservationists led by N3C had succeeded in protecting the surrounding wild lands as National Park and Recreation Area, and with the grassroots momentum built up in that campaign they redirected their efforts to halting the proposed new dams and preventing conversion of more of the scenic Skagit River valley to industrial-scale electrical production.

SCL Skagit River Proposals map by Patrick Goldsworthy, 1969 (Click to enlarge)

Resistance to High Ross took several forms. Groves of huge ancient cedars in Big Beaver Creek valley that would be lost to an expanded Ross Lake reservoir behind High Ross, a forest reminiscent of that lost years earlier in the Skagit River valley above Ross Dam, were surveyed by N3C leaders, and their unique ecological value documented in a pioneering survey report. A slideshow of Ross Lake during low pool draw-downs was publicized to show the effects of a reservoir on what had been a forest. Provocative columns were written by one N3C leader under a Nom de Guerre – opening with, “To prevent City Light from implementing its proposals… will require as tough a fight as conservationists have ever waged.” N3C’s founders hiked the Big Beaver valley and saw what would be lost if Ross Dam were raised, and Patrick Goldsworthy said,

“When the four of us went through the cedar forests and saw what was going to happen there, it was devastating. So we started an opposition… The original Ross Dam was a loss because none of us were around. We didn’t know about the upper Skagit. That’s a shame. It’s like Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. It’s a whole valley gone.”**

A full page ad was placed in Seattle newspapers by N3C on the model of similar ads Sierra Club used to stop hydro developments in Dinosaur National Monument and Grand Canyon National Park. N3C’s founder Patrick Goldsworthy wrote an impassioned plea in the Sierra Club’s journal, “The Nation Must Stop the Dams!”

Meanwhile in Canada, activists had formed “ROSS,” Run Out Skagit Spoilers, to contest Seattle’s plan to flood the Skagit valley farther into Canada, causing an international dispute. Ultimately the conservationists won, a treaty was signed between Seattle and B.C. to sell surplus Canadian hydropower to Seattle at a rate less than the cost of building High Ross, Big Beaver was saved and none of the proposed new projects were built!

N3C’s Margaret Miller measuring a giant western redcedar in Big Beaver Creek valley, ca. 1969. It measured 32ft. 10in. circumference. -Joe Miller photo

Then, almost immediately afterward the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) commenced its re-licensing cycle for the entire SCL Skagit Hydro Project. In theory, FERC could deny the license and the project would have to be removed.

“However attractive in an Edward Abbey sense of environmental reclamation, removing the project was not a viable option.”*

N3C argued and litigated for substantial mitigation. Many benefits ensued. You can read N3C’s perspective of the Skagit Project, its effect on the environment, and how we succeeded in stopping 3 major additions to the project in the Feb. 1992 issue of The Wild Cascades beginning on p. 5. The Hydro Reform Coalition has a succinct summary of the settlement’s wildlife protections. Other major benefits include the creation of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center operated by North Cascades Institute, and an andromous fish flow plan.

The next cycle of FERC relicensing of the Skagit Project begins soon, and NCCC is a part of it! Contact us if you’d like to help – we’re looking for your ideas and energy!


Here is a timeline we compiled from a variety of sources. It shows SCL’s 100+ years of actions in the Skagit River and N3C’s 60+ years of conservation activism there, through 1991 when the current FERC license was issued with a negotiated mitigation package. It’s an epic story of how an industrial juggernaut was stopped and some of its damage reduced and compensated for in the upper Skagit River valley.

  • 1917 SCL receives permit from US Dept. of Agriculture (US Forest Service) to build Skagit dams.
  • 1918 Construction of low Gorge Dam starts.
  • 1919 Newhalem dam construction starts.
  • 1921 Newhalem dam produces power.
  • 1924 Gorge construction completed and power produced.
  • 1927 Federal Power Commission (FPC, the predecessor to FERC) issues license for Diablo Dam (Skagit Project #553). Work on Diablo Dam starts, at the time the world’s tallest dam.
  • 1935 (and later) -Federal Power Act amendments give the Federal Dept. of Interior, including the National Park Service, power to mitigate adverse effects of hydroelectric projects.
  • 1936 Power first produced from Diablo Dam. At the time Diablo had the world’s largest operating hydroelectric generator.
  • 1937 Ross (originally named Ruby) Dam work starts.
  • 1942 International Joint Commission (IJC) between Canada and US approves Ross Dam project. Negotiations begin with Canada with goal of allowing flooding of upper Canadian Skagit by Ross Dam (see map above).
  • 1948 Reconstruction of original Gorge Dam starts.
  • 1952 Ross Dam produces power.  High Ross construction first proposed.
  • 1953 High Gorge Dam starts.
  • 1954 Negotiations with Canada over long-term flooding of Canadian Skagit areas – no agreement reached so annual negotiations required.
  • 1957 NCCC founded.
  • 1961 Gorge High Dam completed.
  • 1967 Seattle City Light attempts to negotiate a compensation schedule with British Columbia over flooding of the upper Skagit but does not receive formal agreement. Formal consideration of raising Ross Dam voiced at NCNP Washington DC hearings/SCL testimony. N3C takes notice.
  • 1968 (August) N3C founders and board members Richard Brooks, Dave Beck, Harvey Manning and Patrick Goldsworthy hike the Big Beaver valley, see the potential impact of High Ross reservoir which would flood the lower valley’s ancient forest with its giant western red cedar groves and marshes, and resolve to start N3C’s formal opposition to High Ross. (October) North Cascades National Park and Ross Lake National Recreation Area established.
  • 1969 Run Out Skagit Spoilers (ROSS) founded. ROSS and Province of BC opposition increases. N3C’s Joe and Margaret Miller begin their survey of Big Beaver Creek’s ancient forests, documenting the ecology there in a pioneering study completed in 1971. Joe Miller writes a series of scathing critiques of SCL’s proposals between 1969 and 1979 in The Wild Cascades under the pen names “The Kerosene Kid” and “The Kaeopectate Kid.”
  • 1970 First Earth Day, April 22. Full page ad placed by N3C in Seattle P-I opposing High Ross, with coupons to mail to Seattle City Council. 6-2 vote of Seattle City Council authorizes SCL to file for amendment of original FPC license to allow construction of High Ross dam. National Park Service negotiates with SCL for loss of recreational facilities because of proposed new projects on the Skagit and its tributaries including High Ross. 
  • 1971 N3C’s Joe and Margaret Miller compete their “Preliminary Ecological Survey of Big Beaver Valley,” based on field work begun in 1969. Big Beaver is a tributary of the Skagit with forests and wetlands that would have been inundated by rising waters behind High Ross dam.
  • 1973 SCL Draft Environmental Impact Statement released.
  • 1974 Public hearings – Administrative Law Judge hearings.
  • 1977 FPC approves license amendment to allow High Ross. Original FPC license runs out. Province of BC makes offer to SCL to sell replacement electrical generating capacity. SCL files application for new license for Skagit Project including High Ross.  “Indian tribes, environmental groups, and state and federal agencies, who participated in the High Ross battle, see relicensing as an opportunity to redress the unmitigated impacts of the Skagit Project.“*
  • 1978 SCL files revised application for new license. NCCC/ROSS and others file appeals in Washington, D.C. District Court of Appeals. SCL opens its Environmental Affairs Division (known today as SCL’s “Environment, Land and Licensing Business Unit“) to take the lead in negotiations for the new license. New EA Division favorable to conservationist’s initiatives for mitigation. Skagit River downstream of SCL Hydro Project added to Wild and Scenic Rivers, prohibiting additional dam construction.
  • 1979 Agreement in concept on replacement power package with B.C.. Federal Power Commission (the future FERC) accepts SCL’s application for relicensing. SCL is criticized for not studying impacts on fisheries, and N3C and others intervene. Seattle City Council approves EIS for proposed Copper Creek dam that would flood the main stem Skagit River below the existing Gorge dam, destroying prime salmon spawning habitat and harming bald eagles that feed on those salmon. “Local residents distrust the Copper Creek plan since the dam would be built in a zone of active geologic faults.”*
  • 1980 Court of Appeals denies N3C and other’s appeal. N3C “declares victory” and leaves the legal arena when deadline for final appeal to the US Supreme Court expires. FERC permit for High Ross Dam becomes effective. Province of BC appeals the IJC 1942 decision.
  • 1981 Interim Flow Agreement with SCL, Federal Agencies, and tribes requires City Light to modify operations and study impacts on fisheries. The Nature Conservancy, which owns a 300-acre eagle sanctuary downstream from the Copper Creek dam site, calls for City Light to abandon the project. SCL shelves Copper Creek dam project.
  • 1982 International Joint Commission (IJC) rejects BC appeal but places 1-year moratorium on construction of High Ross. IJC establishes a Joint Consultative Group to facilitate negotiations in good faith among parties.
  • 1983 Agreement signed between Province of BC (BC Hydro) and SCL.
  • 1984 Formal ratification of High Ross Treaty by Canada and US.  BC sells hydropower to SCL, and High Ross will not be built during agreement duration, until 2064. Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (SEEC) is established, and N3C Board Chairman Patrick Goldsworthy is appointed first member of U.S. delegation.
  • 1986 Leaders of the North Cascades Conservation Council, David Fluharty and Patrick Goldsworthy, say City Light should consider “mitigation for upstream impacts relating to wildlife populations and to recreational and scientific values associated with reservoir inundation in Ross Lake NRA.” Randall Hardy, superintendent of Seattle City Light, says previous High Ross studies are all that is needed.*
  • 1987 NOCA Park Superintendent John Reynolds submits a recreational development proposal for Ross Lake NRA to be funded by City Light under its new license. After 10 years of delays, FERC notifies City Light that it has nine months to submit its application. City Light is granted an extension of at least eighteen more months.
  • 1988 FERC places SCL on timeline for completion of relicensing.  N3C and others succeed in passing the Washington Parks Wilderness Act, which restricts FERC’s authority over City Light’s existing and proposed projects by placing much of Ross Lake NRA lands in statutory Wilderness. The new NPS General Management Plan, Recreation Plan and Wilderness Management Plan outline long-range projects on Park Service’s wish list for the mitigation package. City Light has not set a cost ceiling – the utility’s net worth is $100 million. Saul Weisberg of North Cascades Institute (NCI) and John Miles of the Huxley College of the Environment suggest to N3C that an environmental learning center could be a form of hydro project mitigation.
  • 1989 Jonathan Jarvis, NOCA Park chief of resource management, says the Skagit project should be “operated and the effects of its presence be mitigated so as to have ‘no effect’ on the function of the larger ecosystem.” And that its “recreational potential be developed only to the point that the recreational use has ‘no effect’ on the function of the ecosystem.”* NOCA Park studies show hydro project has a significant effect on the upper Skagit Valley, wildlife and vegetation studies indicate that large habitat losses contributed to the decline of at least ten wildlife species, with scenic and cultural losses as well. SCL’s Environmental Affairs Division establishes negotiation forums for fisheries, recreation and aesthetics, wildlife, erosion, and cultural resources.
  • 1990 All parties sign a preliminary nonbinding agreement to abide by the proposals already on the table – the first formal commitment by the intervenors and SCL.
  • 1991 Agreement among intervenors and SCL on mitigation package currently in force today. SCL submits settlement to FERC. Mitigation package ensues.
  • 2000-2010 As Climate Change becomes a public concern, SCL begins to call itself “The Nation’s Greenest Utility” and use the slogan “Green Power for the People.” See reports by NPR: Seattle Tackles Greenhouse Gases, and Seattle PI: No Global Warming at City Light
  • TODAY – Much remains undone from the previous mitigation, and new ideas are welcome! SCL is already assembling its Steering Committee and Resource Workgroups that will guide the next phase. BE A PART OF THE LEGACY and contact us now to get involved!
Visual Quality Analysis Study Area map from previous Skagit hydro relicensing shows areas affected also included lower Sauk River.

Many thanks to N3C member Andrea A. for significant help transcribing historical documents to build this timeline, which is based on The Wild Cascades, various issues;  Paul C. Pitzer, Building the Skagit, The Galley Press, Portland, OR, 1978; John C Gibson, “The Evolution of the High Ross Dam Settlement“, The Northwest Environmental Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1985; Seattle City Light, Offer of Settlement; Skagit River Hydroelectric Project FERC No. 553, April 1991; N3C correspondence with Seattle City Light; and discussions with Thomas H. S. Brucker, NCCC Board member and attorney, and the late Patrick Goldsworthy, NCCC founder and long time Chairman of the Board.

*Contested Terrain: North Cascades National Park Service Complex Administrative History, David Louter, National Park Service, 1998

**Defending Wild Washington: A Citizen’s Guide to Action, Edward A. Whitesell, ed., Mountaineers Books, 2004