Another Benefit of Hydro: Cleaning up the Skagit River

Each year, Seattle City Light personnel take part in a two-day effort to remove trash and other debris from the Skagit River in Washington. The utility has three hydroelectric projects on this river: 159-MW Diablo, 179-MW Gorge, and 450-MW Ross. As a result of this cleanup program, which began in 2006, more than 11,100 pounds of materials have been removed from the river. This is comparable to the weight of two full-sized pickup trucks.

Establishing the cleanup program

The Skagit River is considered a jewel of the Pacific Northwest for the beauty of its emerald green water, fish and wildlife it supports, recreational opportunities it provides, and hydroelectric facilities it powers. As it flows from its headwaters in British Columbia, through the North Cascades National Park and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to Puget Sound, the Skagit River provides critical habitat for endangered fish and wildlife. It is the only river in Washington that supports every type of salmon, including endangered chinook, steelhead, and endangered bull trout. It also supports the largest U.S. population of bald eagles outside Alaska, along with endangered spotted owls and marbled murrelets.


Volunteers remove trash and other debris from the Skagit River in Washington during the annual Skagit River Cleanup. These efforts have resulted in removal of more than 11,100 pounds of refuse from the river over the past four years.

In addition, those waters allow Seattle City Light’s three Skagit River hydro facilities to provide about 17 percent of the electricity for the municipally owned utility’s 390,000 customers.

Seattle City Light’s sensitivity to this precious resource is written into the utility’s vision, mission, and values statement, which reads: “Seattle City Light is a publicly owned utility dedicated to exceeding our customers’ expectations in producing and delivering low-cost, reliable power in an environmentally responsible and safe way. We are committed to delivering the best customer service experience of any utility in the nation.”

In 2006, Blue Sky Outfitters organized the Skagit River Cleanup as a small event of rafting guides and a few friends. The company started the event with the goal of improving the environmental quality and scenic beauty of a river where it offers whitewater rafting and bald eagle float trips.

When personnel with Seattle City Light and the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest learned of the event in 2007, they quickly joined in as sponsors because of their shared interest in protecting and enhancing the river. U.S. Forest Service officials then recruited Skagit County Public Works to support the project by waiving fees for dumping trash removed from the river.

Performing the cleanup work

In 2007, the first year Seattle City Light participated in the cleanup, about 25 employees joined in, helping to pull about 4,000 pounds of trash from the river. In 2008, about 30 Seattle City Light employees participated, to help collect 3,600 pounds of debris. Snow and cold weather hurt turnout in 2009 and limited the cleanup to one day, but 13 volunteers from Seattle City Light still helped remove more than 1,500 pounds of trash from the river and its banks.

Over the past four years, volunteers have removed a variety of trash from the Skagit River, including an office copier, washing machines, and building materials. Removing this debris protects salmon spawning grounds and other habitat from oil, chemicals, paint, and other detrimental substances. It also makes the river more visually appealing to visitors.

“It all counts,” says Seattle City Light fish biologist Dave Pflug. “Obviously, the fish are better off with the trash out of the river. And keeping the river clean influences other people to try and keep it that way.”

The 2009 Skagit River Cleanup took place on March 14 and 15. The event is scheduled each year for the weekend before the annual start for Blue Sky Outfitters’ new guide training sessions and before the company gets busy with a new rafting season. The 2010 cleanup is scheduled for March 13 and 14.

The 2009 cleanup efforts focused on a 20-mile stretch of the river between the cities of Marblemount and Concrete, Wash. This stretch includes Howard Miller Steelhead Park, one of the most popular spots for steelhead fishing in Washington. The 2009 cleanup also touched a small section of the Sauk River, which joins the Skagit River near Rockport, Wash.

Participants included 25 hardy volunteers in total, consisting of employees from Blue Sky Outfitters, Seattle City Light, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as relatives, friends, and community members. Some participants paddled in rafts guided by Blue Sky Outfitters to reach cleanup spots. A few brought their own boats. Others walked the banks to clear debris.

Because most of Seattle City Light’s employees work in Seattle, more than two hours from the cleanup site, the utility provides transportation and lodging in Newhalem. This is a utility-owned town that provides housing for workers at the three Skagit River projects.

Among the more unusual items participants found in 2009 was a VCR, a crash helmet, a basketball hoop, military surplus parts, an oven, and a 1970s Chevy pickup that was stranded on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. While volunteers could not haul out the entire truck in their rubber raft, they did remove the grille, horn, and headlights. Another group even found half of a green canoe. There was no sign of the other half.

After four years of cleanups, the difference is easy to see, said Phil Kincare, river manager for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The upper reaches of the Skagit River above Marblemount, where the event focused its work the first three years, are nearly devoid of visible trash, he said.

Results and lessons learned

The Skagit River Cleanup has grown steadily during its four years, with each partner bringing important resources to the project without significant cash costs. Blue Sky Outfitters provides the rafts, and its guides oversee cleanup crews on the water. Seattle City Light and the U.S. Forest Service each provide a truck and jet boat to assist raft crews in unloading the trash and hauling it to the dump. Seattle City Light and Blue Sky Outfitters promote the event to their employees and the public through multiple communication channels, including employee newsletters, videos of the cleanup work, online outreach, and e-mails.

The cost for Seattle City Light has been minimal. The utility allows its equipment to be used and provides lodging for workers and their relatives. Three to five employees have led the effort for planning and promoting the event, recruiting volunteers, and coordinating logistical arrangements. That work is accomplished within their regular schedules. The hard costs associated with the event include food and T-shirts for volunteers, gasoline for vehicles, and printing for fliers. Combined, those costs have been less than $2,000 per year.

While the biggest beneficiary of the cleanup is the environment, each of the partners is reaping rewards in the form of enhanced community and employee perceptions and team-building among employee volunteers. In an online employee “Pulse Poll,” about a quarter of Seattle City Light workers said the cleanup was the utility’s best community outreach event. And Seattle City Light employees consistently comment about how much they enjoyed the event and look forward to next year.

The local communities are appreciative as well. Community sign boards have touted the amount of trash collected and offered thank yous to cleanup participants. And one coffee shop provided free drinks and cinnamon rolls to volunteers.

— By Scott Thomsen, senior strategic advisor, Seattle City Light

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