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Washington State Proposes “Water Right” for the Spokane River

Spokane River at Low Flow

As reported in a previous post, the Washington Department of Ecology commenced formal rulemaking to create an instream flow rule for the Spokane River.  Public comments are needed by November 7th, and a public workshop and hearing will be held on October 22nd.

As with many of the Department of Ecology’s efforts, the Spokane River rule is both good news and bad news.   Instream flow rules create a “water right for the river” that prevents allocation of future water rights that harm streamflows.   It is important and necessary that Washington state create such a water right for the Spokane River.

But Ecology has low-balled the proposed instream flow numbers, proposing to protect no more than 850 cfs below Monroe St. dam in summer months.   This proposal fails to give the Spokane River the real protections that it needs.

There are several issues around the numbers Ecology has picked.  First, these flows (which change with the seasons) are not sufficiently protective of the important redband trout fish that live in the river.   Ecology and the Dept of Fish & Wildlife have offered some excuses along the lines of “fish need less water.”  Don’t believe it.

These flows also fail to recognize the Spokane River’s popularity as a recreational resources for boaters.   Ecology engaged in zero research or outreach as to what kind of flows boaters and paddlers need.

Second, Washington and Idaho are slowly building toward an interstate dispute over how much water each state is entitled to use (both instream and out of stream).  By picking low numbers, Ecology is giving away the barn, the horses, the tractors, and the hay.   It is not clear why our state public servants feel they have the authority to make such a giveaway.  Who’s in charge here?  This is an important interstate sovereignty issue that has received no attention whatsoever from Governor Inslee’s office.

Finally, Ecology’s instream flow scientists recently reported on the methods they use to establish instream flow numbers.  The bottom line – in all other watersheds in Washington, Ecology is using very conservative numbers that protect flows in rivers nine years out of ten.   Not the Spokane though, where the flows give 50% or less protection.   Why, particularly given the interstate issues, is the Spokane singled out for LESS protection than other rivers around the state?

Citizens who care about the Spokane River need to get involved.  Keep an eye on this blog and www.celp.org for more information about how to comment and act to protect the Spokane River.

 

 

 

 


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Columbia River Treaty – 50th Anniversary

The Columbia River Basin Image Courtesy of Bill Layman

September 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the Columbia River Treaty coming into force, and is the first date by which the U.S. or Canada could inform the other nation that it intends to terminate the Treaty in 2024.   Many activities have been undertaken to review and consider Treaty updates, none of them contemplating termination.  Rather many parties have focused on how to update the Treaty to include modern principles of ecosystem and justice for all affected communities and peoples.

In the past year, both countries have undertaken concerted review of the Treaty.  In December 2013, the two U.S. agencies in charge of managing the Columbia River dams (BPA and ACOE) issued a cover letter and recommendation for updating the Treaty.

Last spring, British Columbia issued its “decision” on the CRT including 14 principles.  B.C.’s bottom line is “do not terminate but seek improvements within the existing Treaty framework.”  The B.C. view is informed by its June 2013 evaluation of the benefits that the U.S. receives from the Treaty, many of which are not recognized.

In December 2013 the B.C. Local Governments Committee issued its recommendations on both international and domestic issues associated with the Treaty.

The Columbia Basin Tribes Coalition has provided great leadership in moving Treaty modernization toward a new model of ecosystem restoration and shared governance, starting with 2010 issuance of the Common Views document.   The Tribes are pushing the Corps of Engineers to re-evaluate flood risk management of the Columbia River, and seek consultation as sovereigns with the U.S. Department of State, reportedly the only U.S. agency that lacks a formal policy to implement its trust relationship with U.S. Tribes.

In February 2014, all of the Tribes and First Nations jointly issued a policy paper and sponsored two conferences to discuss how to bring salmon and other migratory fish species back to the Upper Columbia River, which would benefit watersheds and people in both countries.

Sierra Club and CELP are jointly pursuing the Ethics & Treaty Project working with religious and indigenous leaders and communities.  The goal is to ensure that changes to the Treaty have a foundation in stewardship and justice.  The Declaration on Ethics and Modernizing the Treaty is circulating for signature by all interested parties.

With the 50th anniversary at hand, and in the face of climate change impacts on water, it is time for the governments of Canada and the United States to work with the people of the Columbia River Basin to usher in a new era of principled river management.

 


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When Will Salmon Return to the Spokane?

Salmon Chief Spokane Falls (Luke Wiley photo)

Salmon Chief sculpture at Spokane Falls. Artist Smoker Marchand. Photo by Luke Wiley Photography, http://law.aminus3.com/

Not just sockeye, but wild sockeye, are returning to the Washington and British Columbia Okanogan country in record-breaking numbers, right now.  Lynda Mapes tells the wonderful story in yesterday’s Seattle Times, “On Columbia, ‘just add water’ seems to be working.”

Water flows are critical to salmon’s ability to get up the river, around the dams, and home to natal spawning grounds.  For Okanogan sockeye, the water spills at Columbia River dams ordered by Judge Redden, as part of the epic Columbia hydropower system Endangered Species Act lawsuits, are proving their merit this year with sockeye’s return.  And just as critical, the Native Nations of the Okanogan Nation Alliance have been the leaders in calling the salmon home — through hard work, collaboration, negotiation, and faith.

When will salmon — in this case Chinook and steelhead — return to the Spokane River?  The “calling home” has begun, with official discussions of fish passage at Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, with the Spokane City Council’s endorsement of the NW Power Council’s proposal for return of salmon to the Upper Columbia, and even with the Salmon Chief sculpture installed at the base of the Spokane Falls in May.

And maybe, just maybe, the Washington Department of Ecology will come to understand its role to ensure enough water in a critical spawning and rearing area for our future salmon, when it adopts an instream flow for the Spokane River later this year.   So far, Ecology has not seen its place in this calling of the salmon home.

But it’s not too late.

Salmon will return to the Spokane.  People with vision, please visit here.

 

 

 


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Tribes & First Nations Issue Columbia Fish Passage Paper

Fish Passage White Paper (2-14-14) Cover Page

Fish Passage & Reintroduction Into the U.S. & Canadian Upper Columbia River (2014)

A new analysis issued by Columbia Basin Tribes and First Nations surveys historic salmon migration to the Upper Columbia and proposes a four-step process to study reintroducing salmon via fish passage at Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in the U.S., and Keenleyside, Brilliant and Waneta dams in British Columbia.

The study, “Fish Passage and Reintroduction Into the U.S. and Canadian Upper Columbia River” is authored by several intertribal organizations representing 15 Native American Tribes in the U.S. Columbia basin, and several First Nations in British Columbia.   The study provides a brief history of the construction and management of Columbia River dams and the consequent devastating impact on salmon populations and the native peoples who depended on salmon for food, trade, and culture.

Prior to dam construction, 1.1 million sockeye, Chinook, steelhead and coho salmon returned to the rivers above Grand Coulee, of which about 644,000 fish were harvested by tribal members.  Total salmon consumption ranged from 6.8 to 13.1 million pounds per year.  Salmon was a key component of the diet of Upper Columbia Tribes and First Nations prior to extirpation.

The survey of rivers and lakes that once supported salmon species is impressive. In the U.S. that list includes the Spokane, Little Spokane, Hangman, Sanpoil, Kettle, Colville, Pend Oreille, and Kootenai Rivers.  In British Columbia, salmon inhabited the Kootenay, Slocan, and Salmo Rivers, and the Columbia River lakes all the way to the headwaters, including the Lower and Upper Arrow, Windermere and Columbia  Lakes, and others.

The Tribes propose a multi-step process to evaluate fish passage technology, donor fish stocks,  the quantity and quality of habitat, and hydrosystem operating changes that would be necessary to accommodate salmon reintroduction.   Studies would also evaluate the socio-economic benefits of returning salmon to the Upper Columbia basin, for Tribes and First Nations, and non-native peoples, including recreational, subsistence and commercial fishers.

The study was prepared as part of the preparation for negotiations over the Columbia River Treaty between the United States and Canada, expected to get underway this year.


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Water and an Open Door Will Bring Wild Salmon Home

Elwha River salmon range map (Nat'l Park Service)

Seven salmonid species will return to Elwha River headwaters now that the dams are out.
(National Park Service graphic)

The time has arrived to restore healthy population of wild salmon to the Columbia River watershed.   Four articles published in newspapers around the region in recent days discuss essential ingredients for salmon restoration throughout the Columbia River watershed (including in Canada):  water and passage.

Tom Stuart, chair of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, explains why water spills at dams are needed in order to bring wild salmon back to Idaho in meaningful numbers.  Failure to breach the 4 lower Snake dams has created a crisis, and more flow over the dams is essential to push the juvenile salmon downstream.  See “Idaho and its chinook deserve an expansion of water spills” (Idaho Statesman, Jan. 27, 2014).

Dan Chasan at Crosscut.com analyzes the federal government’s latest salmon recovery opinion for the Columbia River’s gauntlet of dams.   The last 4 versions of this plan have been struck down by the courts, and the latest draft doesn’t cut the mustard either.   At issue is the competition between putting water through hydropower turbines versus spilling it over the top to speed juvenile salmon on their way to the ocean.  Under the federal plan, once again, hydropower wins and salmon lose.  “Fed’s latest Columbia River plan: play me an old-fashioned melody,” (Daniel Jack Chasan, Crosscut.com, Jan. 27, 2014).   Why have the courts let the feds off the hook for nearly 20 years?

From British Columbia, a recent interview with tribal fisheries policy experts Bill Green and Paul Lumley examines how an updated Columbia River Treaty could help get salmon up and over Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams into Canada (past the Canadian dams) and on to the headwaters.  As Green notes, the smashingly successful return of sockeye to the B.C. Okanagan “is a testament to the power of salmon when you give them an opportunity to do wonderful things.”  See “Canadian Columbia River salmon reintroduction emerges as Columbia River Treaty review issue” (Aaron Orlando, Revelstoke Times Review, Dec. 27, 2013).

And if that’s not enough positive salmon thinking for you, consider that the last chunk of Glines Canyon dam was blasted out of the Elwha River yesterday, freeing up passage for Chinook and steelhead to migrate into Olympic National Park. “Demolition blast expected at Glines Canyon Dam” (Jeremy Schwartz, Peninsula Daily News, Jan. 26, 2014).  (You can watch John Gussman’s video of the blast if you’re into that sort of thing.)

The fish are there, just waiting for the water and an open door to push on through . . . .


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Spokane River Instream Flow Rule to be Launched

Spokane Low Flow (2010)

This graph shows the lowest flow of the year, every year between 1891 and 2010, as measured at the Spokane gage (just downstream of Monroe St. Bridge).

The Washington Department of Ecology announced today that it is launching an effort to protect instream flows in the Spokane River.   This is good news for river advocates, but must be taken with a dose of salt.

The Spokane River needs some help when it comes to instream flows, which have been steadily in decline for decades (see graph at right).   The problem is largely due to groundwater overpumping in both Washington and Idaho.  The Spokane Aquifer feeds the Spokane River, so pumping groundwater has a direct and negative impact on instream flows.

In Washington, river flows are protected by formal adoption of a rule that specifies how much water should be in the river during certain dates throughout the year (usually two week intervals).   These rule-based flows are basically a water right for the river.  Pre-existing water rights that were issued before adoption of the flow rule are not affected, and water rights issued after the flow rule are subject to curtailment when the flows are not met.   The system is not perfect, but it does provide a measure of protection against further degradation of rivers that lack sufficient water (such as the Spokane).

Ecology announced today that it will begin the formal rulemaking process, which should take about 18 months to complete, and will involve a fair amount of public process.

Spokane River 2003 low flows just above TJ Meenach Bridge

The purpose of instream flows is to protect public values in rivers.   For the Spokane, that means protecting water quality, fisheries, recreation, and scenic values.   An important question for Spokane River advocates to ask as this process unfolds:   Will the flows that Ecology proposes be sufficient to protect these values?

In a 2012 memo, and a 2013 presentation, Ecology stated that it intends to adopt a summertime flow of 850 cubic feet per second.  The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife provided technical analysis.  But nowhere in the studies is there discussion of adequate flows for recreation and scenic values.   Alternative views about the amount of water that the Spokane River needs and other issues, submitted by the Center for Environmental Law & Policy, are set forth here.  (The back story is that the City of Spokane has proposed flows as low as 460 cfs, and Ecology believes it can split the baby).

Washington’s instream flow program got a big boost last October, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Skagit River instream flow rule is designed to protect the river, and cannot be subordinated to water for future development.  (See Naiads post Skagit River Wins Big in Court (10-3-13)).

Despite the Skagit court decision, Ecology continues to issue new water rights that impinge on instream flows.   Litigation challenging Ecology is underway involving the Nisqually and Deschutes Rivers (issuance of new water right to City of Yelm, near Olympia), the Similkameen River (issuance of new water right for Enloe Dam, near Oroville), and the Columbia River (issuance of new water right to Kennewick Hospital, see Naiads post Washington Rivers: For Sale).

As the Spokane flow rule develops, those who care should closely question how this “water right for the river” will truly protect the river.

  • Will the flow rule really protect Spokane River water quality, fisheries, recreation, and scenic values?
  • Will the flow rule protect higher flows that occur some years, and provide important diversity in habitat and river channel maintenance?
  • Will the flow rule prevent issuance of future water rights to the detriment of the river?   (Of particular concern is the Department of Ecology’s obsession with obtaining new water for Columbia basin irrigation – the Spokane River is a potential source).
  • How will the Spokane River instream flow rule connect with new pumping on the Rathdrum Prairie in Idaho?

The coming year will present an important opportunity to advocate for the Spokane River.  Stay tuned.

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