Plans to raise the height of a Spokane River dam may be dead.
In a Dec. 4 letter, the state Department of Ecology refused to give approval that is crucial to the city’s Upriver Dam project.
In denying the city’s request for “water quality certification,” the state concluded that raising the dam would do irreparable harm to recreation and river scenery, would cause a slight rise in water temperature and pollution, and would kill more than 200 trees.
In 1983, when the project was proposed, Ecology approved it. The project was delayed by a washout in 1986 and other problems at the dam.
“When it (the plan) was resurrected, additional studies were conducted and additional concerns were raised,” said Carl Nuechterlein, Ecology’s water quality manager in Spokane.
City officials have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the state’s decision or write off more than $200,000 they’ve already spent planning and buying easements.
“We are considering the options,” said Mallur Nandagopal, project engineer for the city’s department of water and hydroelectric services. “It’s a setback.”
The city water department wants to add 18 inches to the height of the dam, located east of Spokane Community College. With the extension, the dam would generate an additional $173,000 worth of electricity a year.
Upriver Dam was built about 1910 and is one of six dams that span the Spokane River.
It turned four miles of river into a pool used by water skiers, Gonzaga University crew teams and personal watercraft enthusiasts.
Raising the dam would flood another quarter-mile of river, including scenic rapids where rainbow trout spawn and canoeists maneuver around house-sized boulders.
The rapids begin at the Centennial Trail bridge in the Spokane Valley.
The project was in trouble even before the Ecology decision. Staff for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wrote in a report last year that raising the dam would cause “significant” harm.
That report is one of the documents the FERC board would consider when deciding whether to give its authorization. But the FERC board can’t consider the project unless it is first certified by the state.
Ecology based its denial partly on FERC’s staff report, a document Nandagopal contends gave too much credence to the project’s detractors.
Most river-runners end their trips at Plantes Ferry Park, just upstream from the threatened rapids, Nandagopal noted. And scientists say that while trout spawn in the rapids - often under the gaze of people peering down from the pedestrian bridge - the eggs probably don’t get enough oxygen to survive.
There was little opposition when the city first proposed raising the dam. State biologists wrote that any wild trout that were lost could be replaced by annual releases of hatchery fish.
By the time it was revived in 1993, thousands of people were using the Centennial Trail, and fly fishing and canoeing both were gaining popularity.
Groups representing fishermen, river-runners, conservationists, Indian tribes and archeologists opposed the project.
“We’re lucky that the city had the problems with this project early on” or it would have been built with little opposition, said G.L. Britton, a fisherman who opposes the proposal.
Raising the dam would cost about $900,000, city engineers say. That includes about $225,000 already paid to 91 waterfront landowners whose land would be flooded.
In addition, the city has spent thousands of dollars on studies required by FERC and other regulators.
“It’s too bad that there is some significant tax investment that’s basically lost now,” Britton said.
The 16.5 miles of river between the Upriver pool and the Post Falls Dam in Idaho is the longest remaining free-flowing stretch in a river that once ran unhindered for 110 miles.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Upriver Dam’s water level increase denied
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT The city must decide by Jan. 4 whether to appeal the state Department of Ecology’s decision to the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board. Without an appeal, the Upriver Dam expansion project is dead. It normally takes at least three months from the time such appeals are filed before a hearing is scheduled.