Home owners around Lake Tapps and the state of Washington in the US, may provide Puget Sound Energy (PSE) with about US$3M in financial assistance so it will continue to operate its White River-Lake Tapps hydroelectric project. In return, they would get a full lake year-round, with nine more months of recreational opportunities each year, as well as the preservation of fish and wildlife habitat, wetlands and well-recharge areas that have existed since the lake was formed 89 years ago.

Currently, PSE guarantees that the lake will be full only from late May Day to the first week of September. During the rest of the year the lake is drawn down for power generation. PSE says the White River–Lake Tapps hydro project became unprofitable as a result of the deregulation of the nation’s electrical power industry in the early 1990s and the drop in price of alternative fuels such as natural gas.

According to PSE, electricity generated by the hydro project — which supplies 18,000 of PSE’s 890,000 electrical customers — now costs about twice as much as the same amount of power on the open market. PSE is estimating losses of US$35-80M over the next 20 years if the project is continued.

The deficit projections include the cost of improvements that are required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which licenses hydro projects in the US. PSE says it will not accept the licence, issued in December 1997, because the requirements, like increasing the amount of water it lets in to the river, would increase its operating deficit.

FERC, the state Department of Ecology and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife want higher minimum flows in the river to improve water quality and fish.

The debate over minimum flows has gone on since the 1980s. In 1987, PSE raised the minimum flow in an agreement with the Muckleshoots native group. Since then, the spring Chinook and Coho salmon runs on the river have grown significantly. For example, the number of Chinook in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ fish trap jumped from 24 in 1982 to 1605 in 1997.