Sunset Falls – Snohomish PUD

Canyon Falls closeupSnohomish PUD has applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to acquire a license to build a hydro power generation plant on the South Fork of the Skykomish River that diverts water from above Canyon Falls to a powerhouse that is located below Sunset Falls.  Friends of Heybrook Ridge is opposed to this project because it is 1) in violation of the letter and the spirit of the Washington State Scenic River System Act (SSRA) ; and 2) against the long-term vision held by the public for the Skykomish Valley.

FOHR wants to maintain views from Heybrook Ridge such as this one.  Needless to say, Canyon Falls would not be the same beautiful site if the flows were reduced over the falls.

FOHR has documented its opposition to the hydro project with a letter sent to the Snohomish PUD Commissioners and FERC.  Please read the full text of the letter below.

To: Snohomish County Public Utilities Commission
       -With CC to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

From: The Friends of Heybrook Ridge

Re: Hydroelectric Power Generation Plant at Sunset Falls, FERC Permit #14295
Dear Commissioners David Aldrich, Kathleen Vaughn, and Toni Olson,
We, the Friends of Heybrook Ridge, respectfully implore the Snohomish County PUD to discontinue efforts toward construction of a hydroelectric power generation station at Sunset Falls on the South Fork of the Skykomish River.  We further strongly recommend that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission deny the request by Snohomish County P.U.D. (SnoPUD) to construct the hydroelectric plant.   Our primary reasons are that construction of such a project is: 1) in violation of the letter and the spirit of the law; and 2) against the long-term vision held by the public for the Skykomish Valley.

Who We Are

The Friends of Heybrook Ridge (FOHR) is a non-profit organization based in Index, Washington.  Our mission is to support Heybrook Ridge County Park, whose creation in 2008 was made possible by our purchase of 130 acres of timberland scheduled for clear cutting, and donation of the land to Snohomish County Parks and Recreation.  Heybrook is an impressive ridge 1 mile north of the proposed hydro project; the ridge bifurcates the North and South Forks of the Skykomish River from their confluence just west of the town of Index (population 160).  FOHR continues to be the local steward for “SnoCo Parks”, with whom we enjoy a mutually respectful and appreciative relationship. [1]

The Law

FOHR is one of multiple organizations that have worked for years to acquire land for public use in the Skykomish River valley and to protect it from inappropriate developments, including hydropower projects.  Our legislators responded over 35 years ago: the Washington State Scenic Rivers Program began in 1977 with the passage of the Scenic River System Act (SSRA), RCW 79.72.[2]  Its purpose was to protect and preserve rivers of “exceptional quality”, that is, “rivers possessing outstanding natural, scenic, historic, ecological, and recreational value.”  A criterion for inclusion was that the river must be “…free-flowing without diversions that hinder recreational use.”  The first State Scenic River chosen was the Skykomish.[3]

The Scenic River System Act also asserts that “It is the policy of this state that certain selected rivers…shall be preserved in as natural a condition as practical…” This phrase is the act’s acknowledgment that it is not practical to restore natural flow in all cases. There may be any number of already-legal structures that affect natural flow, such as riprap embankments, irrigation diversions, fish-ladder diversions, and bridge piers, and since any river may potentially be nominated for scenic status, there had to be a mechanism to exempt the already-legal developments. But direction for future management is clear: maintain the natural flow of the river whenever possible. To legally build a new hydroelectric project (dam or other structures) on a State Scenic River one would have to make the case that there are absolutely no other practical alternatives for power supply.   This case has not been made.


We join multiple others who challenge the practicality of SnoPUD’s proposed hydroelectric project at Sunset Falls.[4]  How is it practical to build a generation plant whose output is mistimed for local and northwest regional power needs?  Nearly half of the average monthly generation forecast by SnoPUD occurs in April, May, and June[5], a 3-month stretch of low NW power needs and low market prices.   The hydroelectric plant would operate at a far lower capacity factor for 6 months of the year when NW needs are high (January-April and October-December) and be essentially shut down for the remaining 3 months of July-October, a time when excess power could arguably be sold to energy-thirsty consumers elsewhere, when market prices tend to be highest, thus reducing local prices at times of true need for affordable power in our region.

How is it practical to build access roads for huge construction vehicles in an area recently devastated by landslides, roads that would be reached via the infamously dangerous US Highway 2?  Note too that the new “dam-less” project features would be built at the toe of previous landslides above Sunset Falls.  The list of impracticalities is much longer than this letter can cover.  But these examples should underscore the degree to which SnoPUD’s proposal is in violation of the Scenic River System Act’s core mandate to be practical in protecting its rivers.

The SSRA specifically states “All state government agencies and local governments are hereby directed to pursue policies with regard to their respective activities, functions, powers, and duties which are designed to conserve and enhance the conditions of rivers which have been included in the system, in accordance with the management policies and the rules adopted by the commission for such rivers.”[6]  The Snohomish County Public Utility District cannot and should not claim exemption from the State Scenic River Act.  It follows that FERC should reject all SnoPUD proposals for hydropower development at Sunset and Canyon Falls.

 Public Land Vision

In 1986, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission (SSRC) initiated active management of the State Scenic Rivers Program.  A Citizens’ Advisory Board (SKYCAB) was created to formalize citizen involvement in 1988.  SKYCAB represented river users, landowners, forest managers and concerned citizens.[7]

Together, SKYCAB and SSRC published the “Skykomish Scenic River Recreational Access Study” in 1990.  The final paragraph of its study’s summary stated, “People of the valley, and people from without the valley share a respect and admiration for the resource that is the Skykomish River.”[8]   Significantly, one of the primary goals of the study’s final recommendations was to “Restrict hydropower development, in accordance with existing and future statutes”[9].   And one of the 6 high priority sites identified for such restriction was Sunset Falls[10].

We hope to impress on FERC our perspectives from Heybrook Ridge.  The Ridge enjoys a central location in a connectivity of public lands that stretches from Wallace Falls State Park to the west (the Wallace River empties into the Skykomish at Sultan), through the Department of Natural Resources’ Reiter Foothills Forest, on to the Forks of the Sky State Park and the Climbers’ Access to the famed Index Wall, into Index town by way of the Crescent Trail and the town’s Doolittle Park, across the North Fork of the Skykomish River via the town bridge, and south up Heybrook Ridge, where stunning views of Mt. Index, Bridal Veil Falls, Sunset Falls, and Canyon Falls are beheld.  (Views of Sunset and Canyon Falls would be markedly diminished with the hydro project’s reduction of their flow.)  The Heybrook Ridge County Park’s trails will soon connect easterly to the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and finally, the Wild Sky Wilderness.  Surely you can see the pattern here: although under multiple public agencies’ ownership now, all are focusing on preservation and recreational development of public land.

Our immediate goal is to prevent damage to the Skykomish River at Canyon and Sunset Falls, including views and access, that would be unavoidable were SnoPUD’s hydro project to be built and operated.  Our mid-term vision is that this Scenic River will achieve “Wild and Scenic” designation and protection, and that public access will be expanded.  Our long-term dream is that we will create a connected long, stretched-out park whose heart is the Skykomish River Valley.

Denying SnoPUD’s requests to FERC for an impractical and unwanted hydroelectric project is a critical and essential step.

Thank you,

Ann Darlington
President, BOD, Friends of Heybrook Ridge


[1] See our website at for details and further information

[3] Protected segments to include 14 miles of the river from the town of Sultan to the confluence of the North and South Forks just west of the town of Index, 11 miles up the North Fork (to Bear Creek), 34 miles up the South Fork up the Tye River and 8 miles more up the Beckler River

[4] For local examples, see the Snohomish County Democratic Central Committee’s “Resolution in Opposition to Snohomish PUD’s Proposed Sunset Falls Hydro Project on the Skykomish River and in Favor of Requesting a Study of Wild and Scenic Designation”, filed with FERC on 4/22/14, and the Save the Sky River Coalition @; for a national perspective, see American Whitewater website @

[5] See Table 5.2-3 on p. 78 and Figure 5.3-1 on p. 100 of the SnoPUD’s Pre-Application Document to FERC at

[7] Skykomish Scenic River Recreational Access Study, by WA State Parks Scenic River Program, December 1990.

[8] As above, Appendix B, p.44

[9] As above, Appendix 2, p.43

[10] As above, p.21