Keeping enough water in the Spokane River at critical times for fish and recreation is the focus of the state’s new effort to adopt instream flows for the river.
Instream flows are similar to a water right, said Brook Beeler, a Washington Department of Ecology spokeswoman. They allow the state to curtail new water withdrawals when river flows hit a certain threshold.
While many Washington rivers already have instream flow protections, they’ve never been established for the main stem of the Spokane River in Spokane County and part of Stevens County.
“It’s a case of us saying that we have some values there, and if we don’t recognize and protect them, we certainly have the capacity to impact them – whether that’s rafting or kayaking or the aesthetic value of Spokane Falls,” said Hal Beecher, instream flow biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
State officials have proposed instream flows that would vary by season, peaking at 6,500 cubic feet per second in late spring where the river flows through downtown Spokane, and tapering to 850 cubic feet per second in the summer.
Setting a peak flow in the spring will protect the spawning and incubation of rainbow trout and mountain whitefish, Beecher said.
Rainbow trout support a popular fishery in the Spokane River, and mountain whitefish are ecologically important because they’re one of the river’s most abundant fish, Beecher said. They both like fast, deep water.
“If we protect them, we’ll protect a lot of other fish, too,” he said.
State officials will hold an open house on the proposed instream flow next month, followed by a formal comment period. State officials expect to adopt an instream flow for the main stem of Spokane next year.
Adoption of the instream flow won’t affect the river’s water right holders, said the Ecology department’s Beeler. They can continue to withdraw the water they are permitted to take. But if a new user applied for a water right, Ecology officials would assess whether the river and its connecting aquifer had enough water to meet the instream flow before allowing additional withdrawals, she said.
The state plans to work closely with the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which already established an instream flow for the Idaho portion of the river, Beeler said.