In 1982, when Lynn Best ’69 joined Seattle City Light Public Utility, her team faced an immediate challenge: assessing the environmental, cultural, and financial impacts of its three electricity-generating dams on the river. Skagit in northwest Washington State. As acting director, he was able to convince City Light to allow the environmental team to lead the negotiations.
“Of course,” says Best, “the biggest problem was protecting the salmon on the river.” Four species of salmonids were known to spawn at different times and depths. The team relied on science to determine the optimal flow and ramping rates, putting the health of these species first, above the power demand. Because the work was done in collaboration with state and federal agencies and local tribal communities, these partner groups endorsed the approach, which was the first time this had ever happened in a large hydro project. The fish responded immediately. Chum and pink salmon return to historic abundance.
City Light’s efforts do not go unnoticed. In 1992, a former member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said the Skagit River utility effort was the most complete work for the public good he had ever seen. According to Best, if you dig hard enough, several scientific solutions to a problem will emerge. And in his experience, at least one of these answers can benefit all stakeholders. It’s a lesson he learned during his time as a major biologist at MIT.
Of course, mistakes are made. About a decade ago, the dam’s gates did not open properly, draining water from a number of salmon nests. This time, as Seattle City Light’s director of environmental affairs, Best and his now much larger team have reported the violation to their colleagues. Tribal communities “did not incur any penalties, which is quite unheard of in these circumstances,” he says. It was a testament to how effective their cooperative approach had been.
In 2005, under Best’s leadership, Seattle City Light became the first utility in the nation to go carbon neutral. And more recently, during his time as the organization’s environmental director, he has advocated for an environmental justice program to protect and sustain diverse and economically disadvantaged communities.
Best retired from Seattle City Light in early 2020. She is now a commissioner on the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission, dedicated to protecting the Upper Skagit environment on both sides of the border. He also spends time observing birds and walking. His legacy of building relationships and managing the environment is tough.