Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Protecting Spokane River flow provides for the future

By Brook Beeler, Communications, Eastern Region

The heart of the Spokane region is the river that runs directly through our community. It provides us a gathering place where we play, fish, paddle and enjoy the scenic views. This working river also helps provide power to our homes and manage wastewater from our cities and industry.

All 114 miles that begin at Lake Coeur d’ Alene — dissecting cities, towns and tribal grounds until it reaches Lake Roosevelt — are significant to us. We know it is intimately connected to the Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which provides drinking water to more than 500,000 people.

Keeping the Spokane River healthy and flowing is important to us. A new rule will help preserve and protect its flow while balancing the needs of all water uses for future generations.
Large gravely soils in Spokane Valley contribute to the continuity of the river and aquifer. Much of the river
flow is lost to the aquifer in summer months which contribute to low flows.Photo credit: Bruce Andre Photography.

Instream flow rules
The water resources of Washington are owned in common by the people of the state including the water in lakes, rivers and groundwater.

In Washington, the Legislature gave the Department of Ecology the responsibility to protect rivers and streams with an allocation of water set by establishing instream flow rules.

A rule allows Ecology to set specific levels of stream flows for a particular watershed and limit future surface and groundwater withdrawals accordingly — to ensure there is enough water in those rivers and streams to meet the current and future needs of people, fish and wildlife. 

Protecting Spokane River flow
The hydrograph shows a median historical, seasonal flow. The adopted instream flow
numbers based on studies that protect fish habitat during these flows are overlaid in red.
More than a decade of work has contributed to the recent adoption of the rule that protects flow in the Spokane River. State and local governments, environmental advocates, local businesses and the community have provided valuable input to help build our knowledge of the river.

The river is a complex system and its flow is dependent on a variety of factors. They include seasonal weather, groundwater use, and operation of hydropower facilities on the river.

Scientific studies detailing these factors, along with community feedback, informed the development of the Spokane River rule. That includes studies that outlined recreational and navigational flows. The adopted numbers are primarily based on studies that protect fish habitat, which is a different method than basing a number on historical, seasonal flow. 

It is important to note that instream flow rules do not add water to the river — they are a regulatory threshold to determine whether there is water available for new uses.

Water availability and new uses
With the rule in place, Ecology can make decisions on applications that request new permits to use groundwater from the Spokane Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which is in direct continuity with the river.

We currently have 22 applications requesting new water in the rule area. Each will be individually evaluated against the “four part test” to determine if a permit to use water can be issued. In order to issue new water rights in Washington we must verify:

    1. Water is legally and physically available.
    2. Water is used for beneficial purposes in a specified amount.
    3. The water use does not interfere or degrade existing water users’ ability to perfect their rights.
    4. The water use upholds the public’s interest including preservation of environmental, public health and navigational values.
The rule applies to the main stem of the Spokane River in Washington within the Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer boundary.
The majority of water users in this area are served by existing water providers with enough water rights to meet future demand.

Individual wells for domestic use have been the source of contention for instream flow rules in other parts of the state. We are fortunate in the Spokane River rule area because the majority of the region is served by existing water providers. Ecology believes these providers have adequate water rights to meet demand well into the future. 

A view of Spokane River falls and the Salmon King from Huntington Park in 
downtown Spokane. These scenic falls are a valuable asset to the community 

and a reminder of  historical tradition for local tribes who gathered here 

before modern dams to fish annual salmon runs.
The best news is individual domestic wells will be allowed if a landowner cannot obtain water from an existing water provider.  With the help of Washington Water Trust we have acquired and placed into trust a senior water right that will be used to support river flows and offset any new domestic well uses that could impact the river in the rule area.

Keeping water in the Spokane River is a priority for all of us. A healthy flowing river that provides fish habitat, hydropower and recreational uses is core to the community’s well being. Ecology’s rule to protect flow will help ensure there is enough clean water to sustain people and the environment well into the future.

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