Ecology Adapts Spokane River Rule

By Rachael Paschal Osborn

Fifteen year after starting the process, Ecology has finally adopted a new rule for the Spokane River.  The rule establishes instream flows that rank among the lowest ever adopted for a Washington state river.  These flows will fail to protect fish, recreation, aesthetics and water quality and generally destroy public values in the affected reach of the river.  For more background, see our December 2014 Water Watch.

Spokane River Flow Graph

The adopted flows, 850 cubic feet per second (cfs) in summer months, 1250 cfs during fall and winter, and a spring runoff flow of 6500 cfs, are lower than what naturally occurs in the river almost every year. The illustration at right compares the rule-based flows (red line) with actual median flows (blue line) for the Spokane River. The amount of water now flowing in the Spokane River is already severely depressed, representing only half of historic flows – thanks to the half-million people using Spokane Aquifer groundwater that directly depletes the river. Notably, per capita water use in the Spokane region is some of the highest in the state.

Ecology justifies its extreme low flow rule with scientific studies that compare river flows with fish habitat (known as “IFIM” studies). The use of this scientific method is questionable, given that Redband Trout are thriving now. Will pushing summertime flows down to 850 cfs really be better for fish? The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife thinks not, and when asked has agreed that the 850 cfs summertime flow is not optimal, and that the fish would do fine (if not better) with higher flows.  The IFIM method used to evaluate flows is not well suited to rivers as big as the Spokane.  The Spokane approach actually violates the state’s official policy to protect higher flows, as has been done with instream flow rules for west-side rivers such as the Dungeness, Skagit and others.

By relying solely on fish studies to choose instream flow numbers, Ecology ignored the Spokane’s popular recreational use. Thousands of people raft, paddle and float the river during summer months. The 850 cfs flow will not protect these uses. As one whitewater rafter noted, “I don’t go into the river below 1,000 cfs because it damages my boat.” Although Ecology received 2,000 comments, including from recreational river users, whitewater groups, and businesses that serve paddlers and fly fishers, the public’s request to protect higher flows went unheard. Ecology also ignored the value of higher flows in protecting scenic beauty in the Spokane Gorge.

Why would Ecology ignore these uses, which Washington law explicitly protects? The answer involves water rights – all water above the red line in the graph is now available to be allocated to out-of-stream uses. Ecology is betting that 850 cfs is a number that can be met most years (a good bet), and that it can issue new water rights that will be infrequently interrupted or easily mitigated.

In addition, the Office of the Columbia River (OCR) proposes to transfer water from North Idaho to the Columbia Basin – intercepting groundwater that would otherwise supply Spokane River flows. The details have yet to be worked out, but adopting an extreme low flow enables OCR to bypass the Spokane River and divert water directly to its primary client, corporate agriculture.

Also at issue are the interstate implications of the new rule. Idaho has issued 900 water rights in the last 15 years, authorizing nearly 200 cfs in water withdrawals that deplete Spokane River flows in Washington. Rather than stand up for its interest in these interstate waters, Washington State has flatly ignored the problem – perhaps because Washington is itself a guilty party, and continues to appropriate water from the Columbia River, to the detriment of Idaho and Oregon.

The Spokane River rule illustrates the problems with putting Washington’s water right allocation program in charge of protecting rivers. Ecology’s Water Resources Program is obsessively focused on delivering water rights to out-of-stream users, regardless of impacts to rivers and aquifers. The Spokane River is the latest, but undoubtedly not the last, casualty of this policy.