Yesterday, 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.
At the center of the conflict between river advocates and Washington state officials is whether water flowing in the Spokane River during hot summer months should be protected for community recreational and aesthetic use, river fish, and wildlife – or if Ecology should be allowed to take more water from the river by granting more water rights.
“The State Supreme Court decision dooms the Spokane River to drought flows every summer,” said Trish Rolfe, executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & Policy. “With such low flows set by the state, salmon will not return to the Spokane River.”
In July 2019, the State Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Sierra Club, CELP and American Whitewater, holding that the Washington Department of Ecology failed to protect Spokane River flows as required by the Water Resources Act. Ecology appealed, and yesterday the State Supreme court ruled in the agency’s favor.
“We brought this case because we believed the law was clear: Ecology was required to protect the Spokane River to protect and when possible enhance wildlife, fish, scenic, aesthetic and other environmental values, while also protecting navigation,” said Andrew Hawley, Staff Attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center. “Despite this clear direction from the legislature, this ruling allows Ecology to pick and choose winners and losers, literally leaving some folks high and dry.”
“This State Supreme Court ruling harms recreational users and businesses statewide by devaluing recreational use of rivers,” said John Osborn, physician and Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group conservation chair. “In the interstate conflict between Idaho and Washington over water, the Evergreen State failed to protect water for Washingtonians.”
“The Spokane River is an incredible community resource for recreation and public enjoyment,” said Thomas O’Keefe, American Whitewater’s Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director. “We are disappointed that this week’s ruling sets the path toward lower flows, reduced river health, and fewer opportunities for recreational boaters. Despite today’s ruling that will make our work more challenging, we remain committed to continue our work to protect instream flows.“
Beloved and imperiled, the Spokane River flows through the second-largest city in Washington state, cascading over spectacular waterfalls and cutting a deep gorge. In most summers, enough water flows in the river to support fishing, river rafting, and other outdoor recreation. River advocates asked the court to hold the Department of Ecology (Ecology) to its duty to protect fish and wildlife, scenic, aesthetic and recreational values, and navigation, when establishing the minimum summer flows allowable for the Spokane River.
In setting instream flows, Ecology failed to account for boaters who use the Spokane River, fishermen who pursue the river’s wild redband trout, and businesses that depend on river-based recreation. 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.
Need to protect recreational use of the Spokane River
In the proceedings, the foremost national experts on recreation and aesthetic flow concluded Ecology’s adopted flows are inadequate to support most types of recreational boating on the river.
Fish need water
Spokane River fisheries need cold, abundant water. Today, the State Supreme Court upheld Ecology’s “data-free” conclusion that 850 CFS is best for fish as justification of its decision not to protect higher Spokane River flows.
Issue experts concluded the state’s flow rule – setting the Spokane River flow rate below the Monroe Street Dam in the summer at 850 CFS – is inadequate to protect and restore a healthy redband trout population, and that the study prepared to support the State’s chosen river flow was flawed. Ecology could have accommodated the needs of other water users without sacrificing fish.
Protecting aesthetics in the city’s heart
“Our city owes its origins, its beauty, and a great deal of its past and present life to the Spokane River. It would be a betrayal of the river and our identity if we did not maintain healthy and aesthetic river flows.”
– Tom Soeldner, Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia River Group based in Spokane