Avista Utilities, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy work out a dam-relicensing agreement to restore full-time flows to Spokane's Spokane Falls on May 6, 2009.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/28/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9785

On May 6, 2009, Avista Utilities, the Sierra Club, and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy work out a dam-relicensing agreement that restores full-time flows to the Spokane Falls in downtown Spokane. This is the culmination of a long and contentious process during which the Sierra Club and other environmental groups had sought to restore minimum flows on the Spokane River as a condition of re-licensing Avista's Spokane River dams. Previously, so much water was diverted through the dams that the roaring Spokane Falls were reduced to a trickle in many of the summer and fall months. The agreement includes plugging some old canals in the river channel in 2009 and 2010. Avista agrees to begin abiding by the flow agreements in summer 2011."Water will be restored to Spokane Falls 24 hours per day, seven days a week," says Rachael Paschal Osborn (b. 1956), director of the Sierra Club's Spokane River project. "It will start to behave like a river again" (Kramer).

Mighty But Dried Up

The annual drying-up of the Spokane Falls -- the mighty two-level 80-foot cascade of the Spokane River through downtown Spokane -- had long been a controversial issue in Spokane. Avista's Monroe Street and Upper Falls dams diverted so much water in the dry summer months that tourists in the city's Riverfront Park were often left staring at dry basalt channels.

When Avista's dams came up for relicensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Sierra Club and other advocates for the falls blasted Avista for this decades-old practice. After a series of negotiations, Avista agreed to a compromise that would restore flows to the falls during the day, but would turn off the falls after sunset and divert the water at night through the Upper Falls powerhouse.

The Sierra Club believed that this did not go far enough. "The falls should be flowing whenever there are people in the park," said Osborn in 2006. "All day, every day, there are people in Riverfront Park" (Nappi).

Spokane Falls Restored

Eventually, Avista agreed to spill a minimum of 500 cubic feet of water per second at the Upper Spokane Falls during the day, and then a drop to 100 cubic feet per second after dark. Also, Avista would spill water over the Monroe Street Dam to boost the lower falls.

The agreement meant that Avista would forfeit some electricity -- about enough to power 360 homes. Avista would replace that with energy from other sources. Avista, which evolved out of the old Washington Water Power company, generates about 10 percent of its electricity from Spokane River dams.

Osborn said it was the most visible victory of her long career as a public interest water law attorney -- and a victory for the city's historic centerpiece. "This is the restoration of a place that's very important," she said. "It goes beyond aesthetic values. There are historic and cultural values here" (Kramer).

Sources: Becky Kramer, "Avista Reaches Dam-Relicensing Deal with Sierra Club," Spokesman-Review, May 6, 2009, p. A-1; Rebecca Nappi, "A Conservationist With Legal Grounding," Spokesman-Review, March 5, 2006, p. B-10; Jim Kershner, interview with John Osborn and Rachael Paschal Osborn, Spokane, Washington, March 26, 2011.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You