Agency’s new Flow Rule threatens Spokane River

2000 comments support protecting river flows

(January 27, 2015)  River advocates criticized the Washington Department of Ecology (“Ecology”) for adopting a flow rule for the Spokane River that allows further dewatering of the popular urban river.  The Spokane River flows from Lake Coeur d’Alene through eastern Washington to its confluence with the Columbia River.   The River supports important fisheries and wildlife, and a vibrant boating and recreation industry.  Two thousand people sent comments to the agency opposing the draft rule and asking that river flows be protected.

“This is a terrible decision for the Spokane River and our community,” said Paul Delaney, a co-founder and board member of the Northwest Whitewater Association in Spokane who has been running the river for 35 years.  “They never talked to us.  They never did the basic use surveys of thousands of people who use the river.  And then the agency disregarded basic survey information we provided on boating use of the Spokane River.  In the end, the agency’s decision jeopardizes the Spokane River and the water future for this part of eastern Washington.”

The state rule sets flows for the Spokane River, including summertime low flows at 850 cubic feet per second (cfs).   Flows that are not protected eventually will be taken 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.

Although Ecology has defended its decision by pointing to a study that concludes that the 850cfs flow is good for fish, scientists have since pointed out that the study is inadequate for setting flows needed by Spokane River fish.   The proposed flows are also inadequate for salmon fisheries, which are proposed for restoration in the Spokane River.

In setting flows, the Department of Ecology failed to consult with boaters who use the Spokane River.  American Whitewater undertook a survey asking Spokane River boaters about their flow preferences.  Survey results 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.

“Excluding rafters, kayakers, and canoeists in setting flows is a dangerous move for Washington State’s rivers,” said Thomas O’Keefe, Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director of American Whitewater.  “Water may be political currency, but we also have stewardship responsibilities to protect the state’s rivers.”

Ecology also failed to do basic assessment of the scenic values of the Spokane River as it flows through the gorge.  CELP released an atlas of 37 key observation points of the Spokane River’s downriver reach, starting at the Monroe Street bridge in downtown Spokane.  The study documents five different flows ranging from 2,800 to 1,000 cfs.

“We need to protect our rivers; the water frontier is over,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, senior water policy adviser with the Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP).   “The law is clearly on the side of the Spokane River:  ‘Perennial rivers and streams of the state shall be retained with base flows necessary to provide for preservation of wildlife, fish, scenic, aesthetic and other environmental values, and navigational values.’”

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