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Saturday, October 24, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Groups petition for higher summer flows in Spokane River

Canada geese squawk at passersby on Canada Island as the waters of the Spokane River rush over the Upper Falls, Feb. 29, 2016, in Riverfront Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Canada geese squawk at passersby on Canada Island as the waters of the Spokane River rush over the Upper Falls, Feb. 29, 2016, in Riverfront Park. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

State officials must do more to protect summer flows in the Spokane River, which will face challenges from climate change and population growth in years to come, several environmental groups said Tuesday.

Last summer’s drought reduced stretches of the region’s namesake river to shallow trickles and illustrated the need for tougher measures, the groups said in a petition filed with the Washington Department of Ecology.

The petition asks the department to adopt higher summer stream flow rules, revising rules that were created last year. The current minimum flow of 850 cubic feet per second for the Spokane River through downtown doesn’t provide enough water to protect the river’s native redband trout, whitewater rafting and other recreational uses or scenic vistas along the shoreline, according to the petition.

“We’re managing this resource not just for ourselves, but for our grandchildren,” said Andrea Rodgers, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Seattle. “We’re hopeful that Ecology will take into consideration the science that shows summer flows need to be higher.”

The nonprofit law firm filed the petition on the behalf of American Whitewater, the Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

The Department of Ecology adopted stream flow rules for the Spokane River after more than a decade of work, including multiple studies and lots of community engagement, said Brook Beeler, an agency spokeswoman.

The department has 60 days to review the 90-page petition. After the review, the department could either deny the petition or start a process for amending the rule, Beeler said.

The stream flow rules act like a water right for the Spokane River. The rules don’t guarantee the river will always have that much water, but they will help the Department of Ecology determine whether the river and its interconnected aquifer have enough water to authorize new withdrawals, Beeler said.

About two dozen applications for new water rights are pending review.

Environmental groups want to see much higher summer flows protected in the river. They’re asking the department to consider flows rules of 1,800 to 2,800 cubic feet per second in the Spokane River through downtown. Each cubic foot of flow represents 7 1/2 gallons of water.

During dry years, summer flows in the Spokane River wouldn’t reach those levels, Rodgers acknowledged. But setting higher flow rules will help the river during the rare summers when water is abundant, she said.

Those summers occur about once per decade, and they coincide with strong fish production in the Spokane River, along with great whitewater rafting and scenic views of the river cascading over the falls through downtown, Rodgers said.

Protective stream flow rules also help the local economy through employment at fly-fishing shops and whitewater rafting companies, the petition said.

The petition also cited research by Al Scholz, an Eastern Washington University fisheries professor emeritus, which says that higher summer flows are needed to protect habitat for native redband trout. The feisty trout form the basis of a popular catch-and-release fishery.

“I think the fish have a right to survive,” said John Roskelley, vice president of the Center for Law and Environmental Policy, and a former Spokane County commissioner. “We need to continue to reach a certain flow for the redbands.”

Roskelley said he also hopes setting a strong flow rule will push local governments to adopt a more rigorous water conservation ethic. Heavy pumping from the Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer during the summer reduces the aquifer recharge to the river, resulting in lower flows.

Last summer, Roskelley walked along the river, taking pictures of the low water. In some places, “there was just a dribble of water over the rocks. You could see the exposed garbage and tires,” he said.

As the region grows, pumping from the aquifer is almost certain to increase, Rodgers said. The city of Spokane and other municipalities have rights to pump water from the aquifer that they aren’t currently using, but might need in the future.

A changing climate is expected to result in warmer temperatures in the river and decreased flows. A more protective rule would leave enough water in the river to “buffer the changing circumstances,” Rodgers said.

If the Department of Ecology denies the petition, the groups have the option of filing a lawsuit or appealing to the governor.

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