Seattle is getting an $11 million refund from the federal government following FERC's reversal in a dispute over land use fees related to the city's Skagit River Hydroelectric Project.

The commission unanimously approved the refund in a Sept. 23 order.

The agency previously rejected Seattle's request to refund fees collected on unflooded federal land around the reservoir above Seattle City Light's Ross Dam. Following that, the city in June asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to settle the dispute.

The court agreed June 29 to delay the case until FERC considered Seattle's rehearing request [21-1129], which Seattle did not oppose. On Aug. 30, the two parties filed a joint motion asking the court for more time to resolve the issue, which ultimately led to the commission's reversal.

The dispute stretched back to the 1970s, when FERC approved SCL's request to increase Ross Dam's height, which would in turn increase the lake's shoreline. But a treaty signed in 1984 by the U.S. and Canada said Ross Dam's height can only be increased if British Columbia ends a separate agreement to provide power to Seattle. The treaty said the city did not have to pay fees for land that would have been underwater had the dam been raised.

However, Seattle continued to pay federal land use fees on the unflooded land for years. In 1995, the new license for the Skagit River Project—which includes Ross Dam—included the unflooded land in the tally of acreage subject to annual federal land use fees.

The city asked FERC in 2020 for a refund of more than $11 million it had paid in fees since the Skagit River Project was relicensed. It also asked the commission to amend its license to exclude the unflooded land, which it agreed to.

Early this year, FERC CFO William Foster agreed to refund $1 million in federal land use fees SCL paid for unflooded acreage around the Ross Lake reservoir in 2020, but he declined to pay back fees collected from 1996 through 2019. FERC initially denied the city's rehearing request.

But in its Sept. 23 order, the commission said its staff had erred when it included the acreage that couldn't be flooded, and approved a refund in the form of a credit on future payments.

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Contributing Editor

Dan has covered stories from Seattle to Tbilisi; spent time with the AP, Everett Daily Herald and Christian Science Monitor; and was twice a member of a team nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He and his wife have three young children and live in Seattle.