Change is in the air at Tacoma Power.
Longtime generation manager for the utility, Pat McCarty, is set to retire on July 1 and his replacement, Chris Mattson, took over on June 5. On Thursday, representatives from the utility came to Chehalis in order to meet with the Board of Lewis County Commissioners and members of the general public as part of an effort to streamline the leadership transition.
Meeting in the Lewis County commissioners boardroom, McCarty, who held the generation manager position for 21 years and has been employed by Tacoma Power for 38 years total, expressed his enthusiasm that Mattson was appointed in time for a figurative passing of the baton to occur. He noted that the issues at play for Tacoma Power as they relate to the Cowlitz River are immensely intricate and can be understandably overwhelming to a new set of eyes and ears.
Earlier this year, McCarty acknowledged that roughly 50 percent of Tacoma Power employees are eligible for retirement. He noted that a wave of retirements he’s calling the “silver tsunami” were imminent this spring and summer, including hydro project manager Larry Burnett, hydro project assistant manager Ken Dewey, engineer Steve Fischer and engineer Beth Jones. Additionally, Taidnapam Park manager Arne Lund was expected to retire this spring, as well as the superintendent of Tacoma Water and the deputy director of public affairs.
“What we call this is the silver tsunami. I’ve been ringing the warning bell for quite a few years,” said McCarty in March of this year. “I think we’re a little bit behind the 8-ball. … We’re a little bit behind as far as hiring replacements.”
With Mattson now in place, at least one of those positions is now in order. Mattson has been employed with Tacoma Power, which owns and operates dams on the Cowlitz River, for 22 years and previously worked as a production engineering manager.
During the meeting, Lewis County Commissioner Gary Stamper said he hopes the new leadership will help to mark a new chapter in a lengthy, and oftentimes contentious, relationship between Lewis County, local residents and Tacoma Power.
“We need each other,” said Stamper. “I know there’s been some anger and bitterness brought up, but I think we need to try to get beyond that because we can’t change what happened 10, 15 years ago.”
Chiming in from across the table, McCarty chuckled as he amended Stamper’s time frame.
“Try 50 years,” said McCarty.
During the meeting, Tacoma Power representatives provided updates on several ongoing projects and situations on the Cowlitz River that fall under their jurisdiction, including Riffe Lake and the trout hatchery.
Tacoma Power noted that plans for recreational retrofitting at Mossyrock Park related to the long-term drawdown of Riffe Lake have been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and that efforts to improve the swimming area at Mossyrock Park are currently being held up only by a shoreline permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. McCarty said that he expects new sand to be in place at the Mossyrock Park swim area by August. Work to improve other docks and boat launches at Riffe Lake that have been rendered useless by the lower lake level is expected to begin next winter. Tacoma Power announced earlier this year a drawdown of the lake’s water levels was necessary to protect against the potential catastrophic effects a large earthquake.
McCarty also noted that there is a possibility that some of those older, out of commission docks could be “hopscotched” by crane to lower elevation locations in order to facilitate temporary use over the summer.
“Hopefully they’ll still be in one piece when they get moved over there,” said McCarty.
While those small-scale projects appear ready to move forward, Tacoma Power noted it still has not received approval from FERC for proposed fixes to the spillway piers on the Mossyrock Dam that have necessitated the Riffe Lake drawdown.
A considerable amount of time was spent by Tacoma Power representatives talking about proposed improvements to the Cowlitz Trout Hatchery, especially in regard to updated bird-proof netting in response to the loss of half a million steelhead smolt last year. However, as McCarty noted after the meeting, there is still no definitive cause for the death or loss of those fish.
“We still don’t know what happened. There is no official cause because the counters are so inaccurate that we don’t really know how many fish were there, or how many were lost,” McCarty said.
Local anglers in attendance at the meeting brought up concerns over extreme, frequent and unpredictable Cowlitz River level fluctuations caused by water releases from the upriver dams. McCarty blamed an unsteady energy market caused by increased renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. He said the energy market goes negative from time to time, especially when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining in California. During those times, Tacoma Power holds water back instead of making superfluous electricity. When the sun goes away, the wind stops blowing, or market demands increase unexpectedly, Tacoma Power is forced to release large quantities of water in order to get their electricity production back in line.
“If you’re making power while there is a negative market you have to pay somebody else to take it, and we really don’t like to do that,” said McCarty.
One area where Mattson proposed to make changes is in how Tacoma Power communicates those river flow fluctuations to the public. He said he would like to see a system established where anglers and other recreators can check in to find out what the flows are expected to be for the near future. However, Mattson also noted that some of the flow fluctuations are beyond the control of Tacoma Power and that there will always be some level of unpredictability.
“The trick with doing that will be to maintain expectations, but we also have a power system to operate,” said Mattson.
During the meeting, Commissioner Edna Fund revisited the possibility of setting up official artifact and historic sightseeing stations at Riffe Lake during the summertime water level drawdown and during the winter when the water level is historically kept even lower. Fund said she believes the historic sites could become a dependable tourism draw.
“From my perspective as a historian, I want people to be able to see the underwater town of Kosmos,” said Fund, who added that she understands that ecologically sensitive areas or places with Native American artifacts need to be protected.
“But I also know that there are places around the country that are protected but that people can still visit.”
McCarty acknowledged the piqued interest in the underwater remnants of Kosmos and Riffe as well as historic Native American sites, but noted concerns over vandalism, looting and illegal camping.
Mattson left the door open on the possibility of historic artifact tours at Riffe Lake and promised to keep an open mind to concerns and ideas broached by Lewis County residents and the people who rely on the Cowlitz River for economic and recreational opportunities.
“What’s important is continuing to work with communities around her to find out what you need,” said Mattson.