Seattlites look to save energy - and fish, too
The Pacific Northwest faces its own energy crisis, as it balances power needs with protecting species.
It was one of those glorious Seattle days. Clear, crisp, sun glinting off Mt. Rainier, Puget Sound sparkling. The kind of midwinter day that makes Jay Whaley anxious.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Whaley works for Seattle City Light, the public utility here, and his job is to look months ahead and figure out how this city will have enough electricity to power the computer servers and espresso machines that fuel its economy and lifestyle. These days things are not looking good.
Up in the Cascade Mountains, where the city owns three hydropower dams, the snowpack is unusually thin. That's likely to mean not enough water to generate electricity, while making it harder to comply with environmental laws. All of which makes Whaley wish for a big storm.
While Californians continue to wrestle with electricity shortfalls, parts of the Pacific Northwest are facing a complex energy crisis of their own. Cities like Seattle get much of their power from hydropower, which is clean and renewable but also harms endangered species like chinook salmon. While most dramas involving the federal Endangered Species Act impact rural Westerners, Seattle is the one major metropolitan area in the country that includes prime habitat for federally-protected species. This puts Seattlites in the midst of a tricky balancing act between saving fish and powering their toasters and laptops.
Ecologists like to say that everything is connected, and it certainly seems true here. The energy crunch is connected to water flows, which are connected to salmon, which is connected to industrial pollution in the estuaries, which is connected to Heidi Wills unplugging her microwave and dishwasher.
Ms. Wills is a member of the Seattle City Council and the point person for energy and environmental policy. "I don't think anyone would be willing to contribute to the decline of a species," says Wills, who won't let anyone leave her office without an energy-saving fluorescent light bulb.
The city is responding to this major energy-environment challenge in several ways.
About three hours northeast of here, the city operates three hydropower dams along the Skagit River. The Skagit is prime habitat for endangered salmon and critters that depend on fish - like bears and bald eagles.
Long before the current energy crisis and the recent listing of the chinook under the federal Endangered Species Act, city employees were carefully monitoring water flows and tending spawning grounds.
"We do try to take care of this unique, beautiful place up here," says Brad Howell, a powerhouse supervisor. That includes everything from building rearing ponds for salmon to using greaseless nonpolluting bushings on turbines. "It all adds up, and in the end hopefully the fish are the winners," Mr. Howell says, looking up at the wall of concrete where his father worked before him.
The city is also working with public and private landholders downstream to protect habitat. "If all those pieces of the habitat aren't healthy it doesn't matter what we do for the fish," says David Pflug, a fisheries biologist with Seattle City Light.
As a result of these efforts, the chinook population just below the city's dams is among the healthiest in the Puget Sound area. But the picture for salmon throughout the region is less rosy, and here the city may have a tougher job.