Spokane River advocates petition state to increase summertime water flow

Water is needed for river health, fish, recreational boaters, and scenic beauty

March 1, 2016

Spokane – On Monday, advocates for the Spokane River petitioned the Washington Department of Ecology (“Ecology”) to increase its flow rule for the popular and heavily-used Spokane River.  The Spokane River is a much beloved urban river that flows through the second largest city in Washington State, including spectacular waterfalls and a deep gorge. Conservationists are seeking a minimum summertime flow of 1,800 – 2800 cubic feet per second (CFS) to support fisheries and recreation, and protect higher flows for recreation when available.

“We are asking Washington state to ‘go with the flow,’ amend its inadequate flow rule, and protect the people’s river,” said John Roskelley, kayaker, author, and vice president of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “Last summer the whole community lived through drought and witnessed the Spokane River reduced to a trickle amid boulder fields. The state has a trust responsibility for our river, and must do its job.”

Nearly 2,000 comments, including boater surveys and aesthetic inventories, were submitted to the Department of Ecology during the public-comment period on the draft rule. The state agency ignored all public comments in support of protecting the Spokane River, and adopted unchanged its flow rule of 850 CFS – river flows that are low and jeopardize the Spokane River and public uses.

Petitioners have retained Dr. Doug Whittaker and Dr. Bo Shelby, who are experts in recreation and aesthetic flows from Confluence Research and Consulting, to evaluate appropriate flows. Drs. Shelby and Whittaker participated in establishing aesthetic flows for Spokane Falls, and are the foremost national experts on flows. They conclude that the Department of Ecology’s adopted flows are inadequate to support most types of recreational boating on the river. Higher flows in the Spokane River, when available, should be protected. Read their full report here.

“Spokane River fisheries need cold, abundant water,” said Roskelley. “The Department of Ecology erred in concluding that more water is bad for fish, thereby justifying its decision not to protect Spokane River flows.” In response, petitioners submitted a report prepared by Prof. Allan Scholz, retired Eastern Washington University fisheries biologist and professor. Prof. Scholz is author of a multivolume treatise on Eastern Washington fisheries, and is one of the foremost experts on Spokane River redband trout.

Prof. Scholz determined that the state’s flow rule — setting the Spokane River flow rate at 850 CFS below the Monroe Street Dam in the summer — is inadequate to protect and restore a healthy redband trout population, and that the scientific study prepared in support of the rate was flawed. Conservationists point out that the Department of Ecology could have accommodated the needs of both river recreationists and fish without sacrificing fish.

“Our city owes its origins, its beauty, and a great deal of its past and present life to the Spokane River,” said Tom Soeldner, co-chair of Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group based in Spokane.  “It would be a betrayal of the river and our identity if we did not maintain healthy and aesthetic river flows.”

Petitioners point out that Ecology has a duty under state law and the public trust doctrine to amend the rule to adopt flows that are fully protective of all public instream values, including fish and wildlife, recreation, navigation, water quality, and scenic beauty. Flows that are not protected are at risk to be diverted from the Spokane River for out-of-stream water uses, including Idaho pumpers, the City of Spokane, and the Office of the Columbia River’s Spokane-Rathdrum ASR project.

“Excluding rafters, kayakers, and canoeists in setting flows sets a dangerous precedent for Washington State’s rivers,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest stewardship director for American Whitewater “Our state’s river face many demands but ultimately we have a collective responsibility for the stewardship and protection of our state’s rivers, and Department of Ecology must protect the diversity of beneficial uses our rivers provide including recreation.”

In setting instream flows, the Department of Ecology failed to listen to boaters who use the Spokane River and businesses that depend on Spokane River recreation. Ecology also failed to conduct a basic assessment of the scenic values of the Spokane River as it flows through the gorge and Riverside State Park – important to users of the Centennial Trail and others.

“The state needs to fulfill its trust and stewardship responsibilities to protect the Spokane River for present and future generations,” said Andrea Rodgers, attorney with Western Environmental Law Center. “Setting flow rates for the river that do not protect fish, sacrifice recreational boaters’ uses of the river, and cost Spokane businesses needed income is an abdication of the state’s legal duty.”

The Department of Ecology has 60 days to respond to the citizens’ petition. Petitioners are Sierra Club, CELP, and American Whitewater, and are represented by attorneys Andrea Rodgers (WELC) and Dan Von Seggern (CELP).

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