Three Washington dams on the upper reaches of the Skagit River in the northwest corner of the nation have come under intense scrutiny during a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process.

The dams, owned by the city of Seattle and which provide roughly 20% of the city’s power, are set to be relicensed in 2025. But 17 tribes, government agencies and nonprofit groups are resisting the the relicensing of the dams, which block 40% of the Skagit River, the largest river in the Puget Sound, because they say not enough is being done to protect salmon or the surrounding environment. At least one group is calling for partial removal of the dams.

The city has owned the hydroelectric dams, about 130 miles from Seattle, since they started operating in 1924. The dams include Gorge, a concrete arch and gravity diversion dam 300 ft tall; Diablo Dam, a concrete arch dam rising 389 ft tall; and Ross Dam, a concrete arch dam 540 ft tall. The 30-year licenses were last renewed in 1995.

“Absent basic scientific data, state and federal agencies cannot carry out their legal responsibilities to protect the Skagit River, recover salmon and orca and ensure that the Tribe's treaty rights are meaningful and respected,” Steve Edwards, Swinomish Indian Tribal community chair, wrote in a letter to FERC. “We do not understand why City Light has rejected calls for basic scientific data to inform the dam relicensing process.”

Seattle City Light CEO Debra Smith says the agency will conduct 33 individual studies, at a cost of $20 million, with 19 of those updated in scope after initial dissent surfaced in December 2020. "Renewing the license also means reviewing the safety, cost, environmental and cultural impacts of the continued operation of the project," she writes. "We will collaborate with local partners to develop an application for a new license that will last for the next 30 to 50 years."

The additional studies haven’t assuaged concerns about the dams' impact on the environment. The Nlaka'pamux Nation Bands Coalition of British Columbia Chief Christine Minnabarriet writes not only has the tribe been excluded from the process, but it remains "concerned by the lack of any studies or initiative contained within the revised study plan which would suggest a commitment by Seattle City Light for investment in salmon conservation measures in the Skagit watershed which would include both mitigation and enhancement measures."

The 150-mile-long river that starts in Canada and finds the ocean in Mount Vernon, Wash., hosts all five species of Puget Sound salmon, three of which are now on the Endangered Species Act list. Southern Resident orcas, also on the list, eat the salmon from the Skagit River.

In government filings, stakeholders ask Seattle City Light to address the declining number of salmon in the Skagit River. The dams have no fish passage infrastructure, but previously, the government said fish weren't in the upper portions of the river where the dams are located when they built them.

Local tribes disagree, as do NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and the National Forest Service, all of which are asking for a more comprehensive fish passage study as new evidence mounts that the salmon are spawning higher upstream than Seattle City Light has said is possible.

Scott Schuyler, natural resources director of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, has been a vocal opponent of the relicensing. The tribe has publicly called for the removal of the Gorge Dam, saying it will "restore 6.5 to 7 miles of Skagit River spawning and rearing habitat."

Seattle City Light has agreed to add more, non-required, studies to the mix, but continues to stand against investigating the removal of Gorge Dam.

It remains up to FERC to determine what Seattle City Light must study. Initial filings are due next month.