Securing a bright future for Seattle

In 1982, when Lynn Best ’69 joined the Seattle City Light utility, her team had the immediate task of assessing the environmental, cultural and financial impacts of three dams that generate electricity on the Skagit River in northwestern Washington. As acting director, she was able to convince City Light to let the environmental team negotiate.

“Of course,” says Best, “the biggest challenge was protecting the salmon in the river.” Four species of salmon are known to spawn at different times and at different depths. The team relied on science to determine optimal flow and rate of rise, prioritizing the health of these species over energy needs. As the work was carried out in collaboration with state and federal agencies, as well as with local tribal communities, these partner groups joined the approach, which was the first time that this happened in a large hydropower project. The fish reacted immediately. Chum salmon and pink salmon have returned to their historical abundance.

City Light’s efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1992, a senior FEC member said the Skagit River project was the most comprehensive community service he had ever seen. If you dig hard enough, you can find many science-based solutions to the problem, Best said. And in her experience, at least one of these answers can benefit all stakeholders. This is a lesson she learned while studying biology at MIT.

Of course, mistakes do happen. About a decade ago, the dam gates did not open properly, causing water to drain from a row of salmon nests. This time, as director of the environment for Seattle City Light, Best and her now much larger team reported the violation to their partners. The tribal communities “did not advocate any punishment, which is unheard of in such circumstances,” she says. This was a testament to how effective her collaborative approach was.

In 2005, under Best’s leadership, Seattle City Light became the first utility in the country to go carbon-neutral. More recently, while serving as the organization’s chief environmentalist, she championed an environmental justice program to protect and support diverse and economically disadvantaged communities.

Best retired from Seattle City Light in early 2020. She now serves as Commissioner for the Skagit Environmental Protection Commission, which works to protect the Upper Skagit environment on both sides of the border. She also enjoys bird watching and hiking. Her legacy of building relationships and caring for the environment continues.

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