Landmark Agreement Restores Flows In Spokane Falls
Thanks to a settlement between the Sierra Club, the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, and Avista Utilities, water will flow year-round over Spokane Falls in downtown Spokane, Washington. Flows in the Spokane River have been interrupted for nearly a century by water diversions for hydropower, leaving the falls high and dry for much of the year, as seen below.
For decades, an upriver dam operated by Avista has diverted all the water in the Spokane River from the falls during the summer months. After Avista's operating permit for the Upper Falls Dam was renewed, the Sierra Club appealed the permit under the Clean Water Act, arguing that factors other than maximizing power generation needed to be taken into consideration.
The settlement to keep the river flowing year-round is of national significance because the legal basis of the Sierra Club's appeal was that the Clean Water Act protects not just water quality, but also water quantity flowing in rivers and waterfalls. Below, another view of the falls, full (at left) and empty (right).
Husband-and-wife team John and Rachael Paschal Osborn spearheaded the Club's efforts in Spokane. "Upper Columbia Group members went door-to-door to tell people how they could help restore water to the falls," says John, "and when no one was home, we left door hangers. We encouraged people to make their voices heard at the public hearings held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and we made a big push to turn people out."
The group also hosted public events at the falls, mailed out a brochure inviting people to submit comments to FERC and the Washington Department of Ecology, and wrote op-eds and letters-to-the editor in local papers.
John, a Sierra Club volunteer leader for more than 25 years, says Rachael, below, was the real mover-and-shaker in the campaign. "She volunteered thousands of hours on behalf of the Spokane River and the Sierra Club."
Rachael, who serves as coordinator of the Spokane River Project, started the Center for Environmental Law & Policy in 1993 while living in Seattle, and she became deeply involved with Spokane River issues after moving to Spokane in 1999. A public interest attorney, she was the liaison between the Club and the attorneys working on the Spokane River case.
"A critical element of this case was that federal agencies had to think about things other than maximizing power generation," she says. "Up until now, after water flows have dropped to a certain level the water has been diverted to a powerhouse and the river goes dry. Now the terms of the settlement say that water will flow 24 hours a day every day of the year over Spokane Falls."
Water levels in the falls were substantially restored by mid-July, as documented in these photographs taken by John.
Spokane is unique among American cities in having a major waterfall in the heart of its downtown, and the falls are widely considered the signature feature of the city. For thousands of years, Indian tribes from the area gathered at the falls because of its abundant salmon runs, and the town of "Spokane Falls" was founded here in the 1870s.
Tribes still hold pow-wows at Riverfront Park, reclaimed from old railroad yards for Expo '74, the first environmentally-themed world's fair. The falls are also integral to the local economy. Hotels and restaurants overlook them, a gondola ride gives passengers an up-close look, and the symphony performs in the park. Yet for years the falls have been dry throughout the summer and fall.
In addition to maintaining the flow over the falls year-round and keeping more water in the river, the settlement sets forth a strategy to support a healthier native trout population and improve water quality in the entire river system.
"This is historic for the Spokane River, but it's also an example for rivers and waterfalls throughout the country," Rachael says. "We showed it's possible to reconnect a river."
The Spokane River has been pivotal in a number of national decisions affecting rivers, including the nation's first ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergents entering a river system—a campaign also spearheaded by the Sierra Club—and using the Clean Water Act to compel the EPA to consider that rivers should be managed as whole watersheds, irrespective of state boundaries.