Freshwater Students Explore Skagit River Hydroelectric Project

The Freshwater Exploration Series provides an opportunity for students from any discipline to collaboratively explore a water theme through a series of events. During the 2018-2019 academic year, the series will explore “Dams in the Pacific Northwest.” Here, Freshwater Exploration Series leader Claire Beveridge describes the series’ first event: a field trip to the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.


By Claire Beveridge. Photos courtesy of Yifan Cheng and Claire Beveridge.

What did the fish say when he ran into a wall?

Dam jokes were flowing freely as six UW graduate students journeyed to the North Cascades on September 27th, 2018 to visit the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. The field trip was part of the inaugural Freshwater Exploration Series, which will explore the theme “Dams in the Pacific Northwest” during the 2018-2019 academic year. This event series seeks to provide a unique interdisciplinary experience for graduate students from all disciplines to collaboratively explore a freshwater topic as well as share related perspectives, goals, concerns, and methods from their various research fields. The 2018-19 series is funded by the Simpson Center for Humanities as a Graduate Research Cluster.

Our first event, a tour of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, highlighted the benefits of and often unpredictable insights gained from engaging a diversity of academic perspectives. It was also just a fun and beautiful day! Our field trip attendees consisted of three Civil and Environmental Engineering students, each with a specialty in Hydrology (Yifan Cheng, Ryan Currier, and myself, Claire Beveridge) and three Humanities students in the fields of Fine Arts (Abigail Drapkin), Scandinavian Studies (Camille Richey), and Anthropology (Kristen Daley Mosier). Our tour guides from Seattle City Light were Fisheries Biologist Erin Lowery and Climate Change Advisor Ronda Strauch, two UW Graduate School alumnae.

Students learn about the Hydroelectric Project
Students listen about the history of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.

Our day started in a cozy Seattle City Light conference room nested in the beautiful Cascades, where we received an overview of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project history, operations, fish management, and climate change adaptation along with career path insights from our tour guides.

Next, we journeyed to the Diablo Dam and Ross Lake where we got to walk across the dam, take in some epic views and insights on the dam and reservoir maintenance, and enjoy a lakeside lunch filled with lots of time for fascinating Q&A.

Ross Dam
Ross Dam.
Students exploring the dam's infrastructure.
Students exploring the dam’s infrastructure.

Then, we journeyed to Gorge Powerhouse where we learned a bit more about the power operations and the surrounding ecosystem. We were also all stunned to see a plethora of Chinook and Sockeye salmon spawning right in front of us!

Ross Dam and Diablo Lake
Ross Dam and Diablo Lake.
Experts provided insight into dam operations and management.
Experts provided insight into dam operations and management.

Our adventures finished with a couple of quick stops to a river bypass reach and habitat restoration areas.

A stream meanders through restored habitat.
An area of habitat restoration not far from Ross Dam.

I found the trip to be a rewarding experience for multiple reasons. Visiting the project site and standing on top of the dam provided an incomparable opportunity to admire the scale of the Project and how the needs of humans and the environment intersect and impact each other. Spending a day in conversation with two leading scientists on the Project gave a transparent and detailed understanding of the complex engineering required to run this operation.  It takes a diverse teams with varied backgrounds to keep the Project and ecosystems functioning fruitfully.

Group shot of field trip participants and leaders.
Our amazing crew! Clockwise from top left: Abigail Drapkin, Camille Richey, Claire Beveridge, Ryan Currier, Erin Lowery, Ronda Strauch, Kristen Daley Mosier, Yifan Cheng.

My favorite part of the trip, however, was spending a day with seven amazing people fueled by intellectual curiosity and an openness for an adventure and unexpected outcomes. It was fascinating to hear the questions and insights of our three lovely Humanists on the trip. They got me thinking about the history of the dam informs its relationship with society today; the gains and losses of the communities impacted by the dams; the ethical concerns surrounding hydropower dams and other engineering infrastructure; the aesthetics of the landscape; and so much more that most of us scientists or engineers don’t think about in the day-to-day. In addition, even my two fellow hydrologists that dospend most of their days like me (doing things like trying to represent physical processes with equations and the language of computer code) asked questions and shared insights that got me thinking beyond my intellectual boundaries. It is remarkable what we can gain in knowledge and character by stepping outside of ourselves, and spending the time to encounter and appreciate the lenses through which others do their work and see the world.

I’m looking forward to the next parts of our Freshwater Exploration Series on Dams (which will includes a panel discussion in Spring 2019), and hope that others will join us in future activities with the same enthusiasm, openness, and curiosity of our dam field-trippers!

So what did the fish say when he ran into a wall?  

Dam.