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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Falls will flow full time

Avista reaches dam-relicensing deal with Sierra Club

A passer-by takes in the falls at Riverfront Park in spring 2008  in Spokane.  The falls are central to the region’s history.  (File / The Spokesman-Review)
A passer-by takes in the falls at Riverfront Park in spring 2008 in Spokane. The falls are central to the region’s history. (File / The Spokesman-Review)

Water will cascade over the Spokane River’s waterfalls even during the hottest and driest of summers.

Avista Utilities and the Sierra Club have worked out an agreement for year-round flows. Even after sunset, when most of the tourists have left Riverfront Park, water will spill over a series of descending basalt columns.

“Water will be restored to Spokane Falls 24 hours per day, seven days a week,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, director of the Sierra Club’s Spokane River project. “It will start to behave like a river again.”

Diverting water for power production had become a controversial part of Avista’s dam- relicensing application. At public meetings, the utility was chastised for drying up the northern channel of Upper Spokane Falls during the summer months.

The falls are pivotal to Spokane’s history, said Bill Youngs, an Eastern Washington University professor. Members of the Spokane Tribe once speared salmon at the base of the falls. Pioneer John Glover, known as the “Father of Spokane,” wrote about the falls in lyrical terms, describing how he sat on a rock, gazing at the river, until he was soaked from the spray.

“He could have been John Muir talking about building a national park,” said Youngs, author of “The Fair and the Falls,” a Spokane history.

But Glover was also evaluating the river’s potential for commerce. Avista’s forerunners shared that vision. The company’s Monroe Street Dam dates to 1889, and the utility still generates about 10 percent of its electricity from Spokane River dams.

During the relicensing process, Avista agreed to minimum flows for the falls. But the company initially wanted to turn off the waterfalls after sunset, diverting that water through the Upper Falls Dam’s powerhouse. The Sierra Club appealed Avista’s water quality certification.

The two parties eventually reached an agreement. Avista will spill a minimum of 300 cubic feet of water per second at Upper Spokane Falls – which amounts to 2,250 gallons of water passing over the falls each second. After dark, the spill will drop to 100 cubic feet per second. Water will also be spilled over the Monroe Street Dam to boost the lower falls.

Avista will forfeit enough electricity to power 360 homes on a yearly basis. The utility will replace the lost electricity with other energy sources, said Anna Scarlett, Avista spokeswoman.

The falls will look very full this summer, because Avista will be spilling water as it works on the Upper Falls Dam powerhouse, said Speed Fitzhugh, Avista’s Spokane River license manager. Next summer, the utility will plug old canals in the Upper Falls’ northern channel, which were dug as early water diversions. That work is part of the agreement with the Sierra Club. When the canals are plugged, river flows will distribute more evenly between Upper Falls’ north and middle channels, Fitzhugh said.

If the work goes as planned, Avista will start abiding by the flow agreements during the summer of 2011, he said.

The dispute over the falls was the last contentious issue in Avista’s dam relicensing. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could issue a new license for the Spokane River dams before the end of the year.

“This is the restoration of a place that’s very important,” Osborn said. “It goes beyond aesthetic values. There are historic and cultural values here.”

Becky Kramer can be reached at (208) 765-7122 or
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