Powerful Relationships-It's the Talk of Tualco Valley

In the Pacific Northwest, a cooperative effort among environmentalists, dairy farmers and local Indian tribes to produce renewable energy is proving that we can all just get along.
By Ryan C. Christiansen / Photos by Matt Hagen
The windward side of the Cascade Mountains in the state of Washington is awash with the names of the indigenous people. The Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skagit, Sauk, Suiattle, Samish, and Stillaguamish rivers each make their way down the mountainsides against the salmon run into the Puget Sound; and each year, the native fish fight against the current to return to their ancestral homes to spawn, and then collapse in death.

As long as anyone can remember, these indigenous peoples-now organized as the Tulalip Tribes-have fished for the Chinook, a Pacific Ocean salmon dubbed by modern tongues as King, Tyee, Columbia River, Black, Chub, Hook Bill, Winter, Spring, Quinnat, and Blackmouth salmon. The Tulalip culture is intertwined with the waters that they have lived upon: the marine waters, tidelands, wetlands, forests, and freshwater creeks and lakes that make up their homeland-now reserved as 22,000 acres between the Puget Sound and the Snohomish River west of Marysville, Wash.

A landmark 1974 decision by U.S. District Judge George Boldt said the tribes' 1854-1855 treaties with the federal government give them a 50 percent stake in the salmon harvest. However, the Chinook have been declining. In recent years, the number of tribal commercial fishing permits has been reduced by more than 75 percent. Urban sprawl from Seattle has been deemed the culprit. In 2001, the tribes sued the state for mismanagement, citing that improperly built and maintained culverts block salmon from returning upstream to spawn. Environmentalists, too, pursued lawsuits to stop the harvesting of trees that provide shade to cool salmon streams.

Tualco Valley
The North, Middle, and South Forks of the Snoqualmie River drain the western side of the Cascades near North Bend, Wash. The forks join near the city of Snoqualmie just above Snoqualmie Falls to form the main waterway. The Snoqualmie joins the Skykomish River to form the Snohomish River near Monroe, Wash., in Snohomish County. Between the two tributaries is an area of relatively level farmland known as the Tualco Valley and is the center of the county's rich agricultural heritage. For settlers, dairy farming has played an important role in the local economy.

However, some dairies in the county have fallen victim to urban sprawl. Because of waste disposal limitations, the farmers are already at a competitive disadvantage with dairies elsewhere. Unable to increase their herds, many farmers sell out to developers.

Snohomish County has stepped in. Its Purchase of Development Rights program provides farmers with cash in exchange for development rights to their land, preserving the land for agriculture. The 42-acre Werkhoven Dairy near Monroe signed on. "It gives hope that there will be ground still left to farm," says Andy Werkhoven, who operates the dairy with his brother, Jim.

Dairy Waste and Salmon Habitat
In 1991, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service received a petition to list Pacific Northwest salmon under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, the organization has been working to determine which salmon populations might be endangered. A 1995 Washington State Department of Ecology report said the most common water quality problems in salmon streams were caused by an increase in fecal coliform levels and a decrease in dissolved oxygen levels, attributable to dairy wastes. Some environmentalists cried foul-but not all.

"You had a number of people jump on farmers, saying we want to turn the clock back 100 years," says John Sayre, executive director of Northwest Chinook Recovery, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997 to protect salmon habitat in the Puget Sound region. "That's not realistic." Sayre says he has worked with farmers on a number of salmon-friendly projects, including the Haskell Slough project where Dale Reiner, a local beef cattle farmer, sought help after being flooded in 1990 and again in 1995. Reiner, who lives and works on land that his great-grandfather homesteaded in 1873 in the Tualco Valley on a bend in the Skykomish River, worked with Sayre and also federal, state and tribal agencies to build a natural barrier that prevents flooding but also reconnects three miles of slough and 11 ponds with the river's main channel, providing slow-water rearing habitat for salmon.

Werkhoven says it was through Reiner, his neighbor, that he met Sayre and also leaders of the Tulalip Tribes. "Dale was the one who said, ‘Hey, you got to meet these guys. They would rather work with us than against us,'" he says.

"We started meeting with the Indian tribes and had clandestine meetings in people's houses on the reservation or elsewhere," Sayre says. "You'd have two or three farmers and two or three members of the tribal council and out of that developed a friendship, and then eventually partnership and trust."

"We spent a lot of time with each other, getting to know each other, and talking," Werkhoven says. "It's a whole lot different to argue with somebody if it's the same person that
you have dinner with. You work with them."

Werkhoven says it was at one of those meetings that someone from the tribes suggested that an anaerobic digester might be built to produce electricity using manure from dairy operations.

"They had a simple theory: cows are better than condos," Werkhoven says. "Not only do you have fewer landowners to deal with, but you have landowners who have a vested interest in protecting [the environment]. We have more in common, oftentimes, with the tribes than we have apart; and we have a tremendous amount in common with [environmentalists] like John [Sayre]. It's a real blessing to be able to work with folks like that."

"I have been involved in salmon protection and restoration for more years than I care to admit, probably about 35," Sayre says. "In the process, I realized that you don't save salmon or anything in a vacuum. Farmers and the farmlands along rivers have the best potential to restore salmon habitat. Farmers are not the enemy; they are potentially the best friend that salmon could have."

Enter the Qualco Energy Corp.
In 2003, the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, Northwest Chinook Recovery, and the Tulalip Tribes "put a little sweat into the game," Werkhoven says. They agreed to work together on an anaerobic digester project. The tribes received a $256,000 grant from the U.S. DOE to conduct an environmental assessment for the project, which was completed in September 2005. The partners then formed Qualco Energy Corp., a nonprofit organization where the groups are equal partners. The tribes were awarded a $1.5 million loan in 2006 from the state's Energy Freedom Loan fund for the project.

Werkhoven says the tribes have led the effort. "They have provided excellent project management," he says. "They have very good people and they hire the best. It's a real privilege to be working with them."

Crews began building the anaerobic digester in July on the 280-acre site of the former Washington State Reformatory Dairy Farm, which for 60 years was a prison farm. The farm closed in 2002.

The anaerobic digester will have enough capacity to digest feedstock from 2,200 cows. The Werkhoven Dairy with its 1,000 milking cows and two neighboring dairies will collect manure from approximately 1,500 cows to supply feedstock for the digester, which will take six weeks to fill and rise to the required temperature for digestion.

Each of the farms involved currently flush manure into lagoons or scrape manure from stalls to manage the solids on-site. The manure is later applied to fields. The waste collection systems at the farms are being adapted to pump fresh manure from the farms to the digester where methane gas will be produced. The methane will be burned by combustion engines to generate electricity. The remaining liquids and solids will then be separated. The digested liquid effluent will be pumped back to the farms to be applied to fields as fertilizer. The digested solids will be dried and marketed as compost or animal bedding. The digester was expected to be ready to accept feedstock by the end of October.

If all goes as planned, generators at the Qualco facility will begin producing electricity in January to be sold to the Snohomish County Public Utility District. The generators will produce 450 kilowatts of power, enough to power approximately 300 homes, says Neil Neroutsos, a spokesman for the PUD. He says the PUD and Qualco continue to negotiate a power purchase agreement.

The PUD became involved in 2004 soon after the project was initially proposed, Neroutsos says. "We look at the project as an opportunity to educate the public about how this power source works," he says, "and to conduct educational tours and increase overall understanding of biogas generation."

Neroutsos says the biogas digester will help the PUD to meet a portion of the utility's renewable portfolio standards requirements.

Future Plans
Using the digester might eventually allow Werkhoven and the other farmers to be more competitive. "This project will allow participating dairies to grow their herds to the size that best fits their business plan, management style and future goals," Reiner says, "without being restricted by the number of cows allowed on a per-acre basis."

"We hope to be able to continue to expand our dairy," Werkhoven says. "We would love to have the opportunity to build additional digester capacity."

Sayre says Qualco could build anaerobic digesters at the site to serve more than just dairy farmers. "There are a whole bunch of other things that are now going into landfills that can go in there to produce methane," he says. "Since we are close to Seattle, I think there is going to be a lot of other sources of feedstock that are going to come forward." Sayre says examples include whey from cheese makers, waste eggs from chicken farms and other food waste. "Look at all of the food that gets wasted in this country on an annual basis," he says.

Revenue from the Qualco digesters might also help to fund more salmon habitat protection projects, Sayre says, and will also serve as a demonstration site. "This project has turned into far more than an anaerobic digester," he says. "This is a site that we want to use to demonstrate some of the answers that we have. It really is a demonstration site for, hopefully, a new way of thinking, and a new approach. It's not just talking or producing another damned report. It's a demonstrable solution."

Werkhoven says the group has been working to bring together other Indian tribes and groups of dairy farmers. He says building a working relationship is a lot like a long courtship that ends in marriage. "It's kind of like the way old-fashioned people used to get married," he says. "It's a good thing, you know? It's a very good thing."

Ryan C. Christiansen is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach him at rchristiansen@bbiinternational.com or (701) 373-8042.