In 1982, when Lynn Best ’69 joined the utilities of the Seattle City Lights, her team faced an immediate challenge: evaluating the environmental, cultural, and financial impacts of its three dams that generate electricity on the Skagit River in northwest Washington state. As acting manager, she was able to convince City Light to let the environment team lead the negotiations.
“Of course, the biggest problem was protecting the salmon on the river,” Best says. Four species of salmon are known to breed at different times and depths. The team relied on science to determine optimal inflow and outflow rates, and put the health of these species first, above energy demand. Because the work was done in collaboration with state and federal agencies as well as local tribal communities, these partner groups signed up to this approach, and this was the first time this had ever happened in a large hydropower project. The fish responded immediately. Friend salmon and pink salmon are back in historical abundance.
City Light’s efforts did not go unnoticed. In 1992, a prominent member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said that the facility’s Skagit River effort was the most comprehensive act of public good he had ever seen. According to Best, if you search hard enough, multiple scientific solutions to a problem will turn up. In her experience, at least one of these answers can benefit all stakeholders. It’s a lesson she learned while majoring in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Of course, mistakes happen. For nearly a decade, the dam’s gates failed to open properly, draining water away from a number of salmon nests. This time, as the Seattle City Light’s director of environmental affairs, Best and her larger team now report the violation to their partners. She says the tribal communities “didn’t advocate any punishments, which is unheard of in those circumstances.” It was a testament to the effectiveness of her collaborative approach.
In 2005, under Best’s leadership, Seattle City Light became the first facility in the country to convert to carbon neutral. Most recently, during her tenure as the organization’s chief environment officer, she advocated for an environmental sanitation program to protect and support diverse and economically disadvantaged communities.
Best Seattle City Lights retire in early 2020. She is now a commissioner with the Skagit Environmental Endowments Commission, which is dedicated to protecting the upper Skagit environment on both sides of the border. She also spends time birdwatching and hiking. Its legacy of relationship building and environmental stewardship continues.