Digester generates more than electricity
Nonprofit project draws farmers, environmentalists, tribes together
By STEVE BROWN
MONROE, Wash. -- An anaerobic digester northeast of Seattle creates both good will and energy as it keeps manure and other waste products out of Puget Sound.
Neighbors in the Snohomish River watershed have overcome traditional barriers to create Qualco Energy, a nonprofit that owns the digester project. Farmers, an environmental group and a 3,500-member American Indian tribe have found common ground in the river they share.
Farmers Andy Werkhoven and Dale Reiner saw their land needing protection from the Skykomish River, a tributary of the Snohomish.
Northwest Chinook Recovery saw the need to protect the river as salmon habitat.
And for the Tulalip Tribes, "The river is our lifeblood," said Daryl Williams, the tribes' environmental liaison. "The tribes were here when salmon first arrived, and all of our cultural practices include having salmon."
The cooperation started with Haskell Slough, a troublesome part of Reiner's property. About 15 years ago, when the river began to change its course, Reiner found it difficult to get a permit to build flood protection.
Hoping for a solution, he invited John Sayre, of Northwest Chinook Recovery, to look at the situation. Sayre recognized the slough as an old river channel that could provide off-channel rearing habitat for salmon.
They connected the ponds and opened them to the river channel at the downstream end.
"Within 24 hours you had adult fish back in there for the first time in 60 years," Sayre said.
The Washington State Legislature provided $800,000 for the project, which included rebuilding the riverbank to protect farmland.
The success drew farmers and environmentalists together and developed "open, honest communication," Werkhoven said.
The Tulalip Tribes saw what was going on and wanted to become involved. Williams said tribes had spent decades fighting with farmers in courts or not talking to them at all, "but in the last 10 or 12 years we've been trying to work together with them, and we've developed some good friendships in farming communities."
As the three sides grew closer, they sought to develop a sustainable land strategy in Snohomish County that would benefit both farming and salmon.
They developed Qualco Energy as a nonprofit organization. In the language of the Coast Salish tribe, "Qualco" means "where two rivers come together." That refers to the Skykomish and the Snoqualmie rivers, which meet to form the Snohomish near Monroe, where the nonprofit operates the digester.
The digester cost $4 million and is funded by a 13-year loan through a Bank of America Clean Energy Bond and a USDA grant of $500,000.
Sales of electricity and compost generated by the digester, along with a tipping fee paid by those who add material to the digester, will pay off the loan.
Any revenue above the loan payments goes to agricultural, fish and wildlife projects.