July 9, 2008 in Idaho

Avista’s river-use conditions challenged

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Avista Corp. should do more to protect the Spokane River in return for harnessing its water for hydropower generation, two environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy filed an appeal Tuesday with Washington’s Pollution Control Hearings Board, saying the state was too lax in issuing conditions for operation of four Avista dams on the Washington side of the 111-mile river.

Avista is working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to relicense the dams for another 30 to 50 years. As part of the process, the state issues a 401 certification, which sets conditions to ensure that water quality standards are met.

The appeal says tougher requirements are needed to protect the river’s native redband trout; prevent algae blooms in Long Lake; and ensure that residents can enjoy a nice-looking cascade of water over the north channel of the Upper Falls Dam.

Through the appeal, “we’re putting the treatment of the river and the falls on trial, and the river is going to win,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, the Sierra Club’s Spokane River project coordinator.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board is expected to hear the case next year.

Officials at Washington’s Department of Ecology say they stand by their work.

“We think this is a really good document,” Jani Gilbert, Ecology spokeswoman, said of the 401 certification, released by the agency in June. “We’re going to end up with a better river because of it.”

In some cases, Avista must do more studies so Ecology can evaluate the data and set conditions, Gilbert said. But that doesn’t give the utility a free pass, she said.

“We have firm dates when these studies must be done,” she said. “We need to be very careful about getting pertinent questions answered before we can make a responsible decision.”

Many of the issues are complex, said Hugh Imhof, Avista spokesman. Cold water entering the river from the aquifer creates good trout habitat. If Avista releases too much warm water from Lake Coeur d’Alene during the summer months, it heats up the river, he said.

Avista also is required to do extensive studies to determine how Long Lake Dam contributes to algae blooms in the river.

“We’re willing to do our share to address that, but it’s not just Avista’s problem,” Imhof said.

Phosphorus from sewage treatment plants is also a factor, he said.

Avista’s Spokane River dams produce about 105 megawatts of electricity, roughly enough to power 68,000 homes for a year.

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