2,000 comments submitted on Dept of Ecology’s draft flow rule for the Spokane River

CELP, other river advocacy groups provide basic information missing from agency’s flow proposal

On November 7, CELP and other river advocates filed nearly 2,000 comments and released Spokane River studies criticizing the Dept. of Ecology’s proposed rule for the Spokane River. The Ecology proposal would set instream flows, including summertime low flows at 850 cubic feet per second (cfs). Spokane River flows exceed this number for most of the summer every year, but all water above 850 cfs will eventually be taken by Washington and Idaho for out-of-stream water rights under this proposal.

In proposing such extreme low flows, the Department of Ecology ignored statutory requirements to protect recreational and navigational values of the Spokane River. Preliminary findings from an American Whitewater survey, asking Spokane River boaters about their flow preferences, show that all boaters prefer flows higher than 1000 cfs and most prefer flows in the range of 5000 cfs. Flows less than 1000 cfs are considered unfavorable to boaters and can cause damage to some craft. Numerous boating groups, individual paddlers and whitewater-based businesses commented on the inadequacy of the proposed flows to protect recreational use of the river.

Ecology also failed to assess scenic values of the Spokane River as it flows through the gorge, prompting river advocates to undertake their own photographic study. CELP’s atlas of 37 key observation points of the Spokane River’s downriver reach, inventorying the reach between the Monroe Street bridge in downtown Spokane and Nine Mile reservoir, documents five different flows ranging from 2,800 to 1,000 cfs. CELP also submitted a memo from Confluence Research & Consulting, a firm that provides training to Ecology staff, describing methods to conduct aesthetic flow studies.

Ecology also failed to consider the interstate water supply ramifications of its proposed rule. Since 2002, Idaho has issued 901 new water rights from the Rathdrum Aquifer, which feeds the Spokane River in Washington. CELP synthesized the Idaho database and provided an “Idaho Water Rights Report” with its comments.

Multiple businesses, organizations, and individuals who would be harmed by the proposed low flows submitted comments, altogether about 2,000 comments. In addition to recreation, aesthetic and interstate issues, commenters questioned the impact of extreme low flows on redband fisheries and water quality, and noted that Ecology failed to consider needs related to restoration of anadromous fish to the Spokane River. The draft rule also failed to consider the economic impact of its proposal on small businesses that rely on a healthy Spokane River, and did not consider climate change impacts, despite an executive order that requires climate change analysis as part of all state agency decisions.

CELP has been involved with Spokane River flow advocacy since 1999, serving on the WRIA 55/57 watershed planning unit and its instream flow subcommittee through 2012. Watershed planning failed to achieve consensus and, per statute, the flow setting decision then transferred to the Departments of Ecology and Fish & Wildlife. Ecology has erroneously suggested in public settings that the extreme low flows proposed in the rule were a product of the watershed planning process. In private conversations, agency staff admit the proposal is a “split the baby decision” intended to pacify Spokane basin water users.

In 2008, CELP challenged the instream flows established for the Spokane Falls in Avista Corp.’s hydropower license, based on failure to protect aesthetic flows. That appeal resulted in a settlement restoring water to the Upper and Lower Spokane Falls 24/7/365.

Ecology may adopt the draft Spokane River rule as proposed, or could return the flow proposal to draft status and re-evaluate the need for higher flows to preserve public values.