Major War Brewing over Efforts to Save Spokane River

Few cities have waterfalls thundering through the downtown core. Even fewer have one like Spokane's, which can be -- and often is -- shut off at the spigot.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Few cities have waterfalls thundering through the downtown core. Even fewer have one like Spokane's, which can be -- and often is -- shut off at the spigot.

Facing a rare opportunity to reshape the Spokane River, environmental groups are demanding that the water be used for fish and aesthetics rather than generating electricity.

The fight over the relatively short and obscure river is a microcosm of what is happening across the West.

"We'll probably never make everyone happy," said Hugh Imhof, a spokesman for Avista, Spokane's electrical utility.

Avista has applied for a new 30- to 50-year federal license to operate its five hydroelectric dams, and interest groups are demanding that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission consider their needs when setting policy for the new license.


Environmentalists want water released frequently, to aid fish in the river, keep the falls roaring and boost recreation.

Business interests want to make sure there is plenty of cheap hydropower for factories, homes and businesses.

And tourism officials and homeowners on scenic Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho want to make sure that enough water is left in the lake to allow them to use their docks and keep marinas in business. The river flows out of the lake and through the urban Spokane area before its confluence with the Columbia River.

Imhof said no agreement has been reached among the competing interests, but Avista plans to deliver its final licensing application to the federal government in July.

The utility proposes keeping enough water flowing through downtown during daylight hours to keep the falls scenic. At night, water would be diverted through turbines to create electricity.

But several thorny issues remain.

"The Spokane River is one of the most polluted rivers in the state of Washington," said Rachael Paschal Osborn, a water lawyer and Sierra Club activist in Spokane.

The state recently released for public comment a plan to clean up industrial PCBs in the river, the state's most PCB-fouled. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are synthetic chemicals used in transformers and other industrial equipment that were banned in 1979. They are a suspected human carcinogen.

Also, the river does not contain enough dissolved oxygen in the summer to support a healthy fish population.

The state is under a federal court order to solve the problem, and had proposed a plan that would have essentially required many industrial users of the river to stop discharging wastewater during summer months, forcing them to find costly alternatives.

The dischargers replied with a proposal that they would pledge to use the best technology for treating wastewater, investigate and implement ways to reuse wastewater rather than discharging it to the river, and study water conservation and farm runoff.

"The bottom line ... is a cleaner Spokane River, at less cost and with less conflict," said Andy Rustemeyer, who represented business interests in discussions. But the local Sierra Club calls it a "Trojan horse" effort to weaken dissolved oxygen standards for the river.

Also, environmentalists are starting to focus on a long-term goal, restoring salmon to the river.

Salmon runs ended when the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams were constructed on the Columbia River, blocking fish from reaching the ocean and then returning to spawn.

With the federal government beginning to study options for moving salmon around or over the huge dams, Osborn thinks Avista should start the same process for its much smaller dams blocking the Spokane.

"The salmon will come back," she said. "We need to get the Spokane River ready too."

Source: Associated Press