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History of Spokane River’s instream flow rule

In 2014, CELP and Sierra Club put together a Preliminary Summary Report on Spokane River Rule Comments. On Friday, November 7, 2014, we completed the first phase of our campaign to persuade the Department of Ecology to adopt an instream flow rule for the Spokane River that protects all uses of the river. This involved turning out substantial and meaningful public comment on the draft rule. Thank you to the hundreds of people and groups who participated.

In 2015, the Department of Ecology adopted an instream flow rule for the Spokane River. Ecology established an 850 cubic feet per second flow rule, which is considered near-drought level for the river. The rule fails to account for recreational users, businesses and the wildlife that depend on the river. In 2016, alongside a coalition of environmental organizations, CELP’s challenge to the rule was denied. 

Public Support and Outreach

Nearly 2,000 comments, including boater surveys and aesthetic inventories, were submitted to Ecology during the public comment period on the draft rule. In setting instream flows, Ecology’s decision failed to account for boaters who use the Spokane River, fishermen who pursue the river’s wild redband trout, and businesses that depend on Spokane River recreation. American Whitewater undertook a survey asking Spokane River boaters about their flow preferences.  Survey results show that all boaters prefer flows higher than 1000 cfs and most prefer flows in the range of 5000 cfs.   Flows less than 1000 cfs are considered unfavorable to boaters and can cause damage to some craft.

Ecology also failed to conduct a basic assessment of the scenic values of the Spokane River as it flows through the gorge and Riverside State Park – important to users of the Centennial Trail and others.

Overall, Ecology ignored all public comments in support of protecting the Spokane River and adopted unchanged its flow rule of 850 cubic feet per second (CFS) – near-drought level river flows that will jeopardize the Spokane River and its public uses. “This is a terrible decision for the Spokane River and our community,” said Paul Delaney, a co-founder and board member of the Northwest Whitewater Association in Spokane who has been running the river for 35 years. 

Spokane River Key Observation Points Flow Comparison 2500 CFS vs. 1000CFS

Spokane River Atlas of KOPs

Boater Survey

Summer 2019 Win

In 2019, we challenged the inadequate streamflow rule in the Court of Appeals Division II. We argued that the state was required to consider all uses of the river, not just fishery uses, in adopting instream flow rules. On June 26, 2019, the Washington State Court of Appeals Division II ruled in favor of Spokane River advocates, finding that the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) failed to protect summertime flows needed by the river, and thousands of boaters, fishers, anglers, and businesses.  The court, in rejecting Ecology’s Spokane River rule, underscored that the agency arbitrarily disregarded thousands of public comments, boater surveys, an analysis comparing the aesthetics of different flows, and testimony of river-dependent businesses.

The court ruled:

  • “The [Spokane] river is a central feature of the region’s identity, and Spokane residents view the river as an integral part of their community. (Opinion, p.3)
  • Ecology may not “narrowly protect only one instream value that Ecology deems ‘best’”, but must “meaningfully consider a range of instream values . . .” (Opinion, p. 17)
  • “Ecology’s explanations for establishing instream flows based only on fish habitat studies without regard to how its proposed flow would protect other values was arbitrary and capricious. Therefore, the resulting Rule is invalid.” (Opinion, p.21)

CELP before the Washington State Supreme Court May 14th 2020

A review requested by the Ecology was accepted by the Washington State Supreme Court. The case was argued via Zoom on May 14th 2020. We will continue to fight for an instream flow rule that protects the Spokane River and its users. You can view the proceedings below.
Washington State Supreme Court. Oral arguments: Center for Environmental Law & Policy, American Whitewater, and Sierra Club v. State of Washington, Department of Ecology (Did the Department of Ecology’s rule, WAC 173-557-050, validly set minimum summer flow rates for the Spokane River?)

August 6th 2020 Washington State Supreme Court ruling

The State Supreme Court ruled against protecting flows in the Spokane River, rejecting arguments of river advocates, upholding the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology)’s drought-level flow rate decision. The decision subverts the will of the state legislature, granting total control over river flows in Washington state to Ecology and establishes a superficial role for public input the agency is free to ignore. Nothing in the court’s decision, however, prevents Ecology from restoring Spokane River flow rates to levels that will sustain and restore fish, support the recreation economy, and revive the river character of Spokane.

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