by INLANDER STAFF & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e can't allow Earth Day to slide into the landfill of history. It's as important as ever. Some 20 million Americans participated in the very first one, in 1970. They rallied. They cleaned rivers. They staged teach-ins. They got stuff done. It was the spark that led to two breakthrough laws, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Nearly 40 years later, we can see things happening across the Inland Northwest -- efforts to encourage bicycling, build "green" schools, cut down on waste.
Now that "going green" has entered the mainstream, Earth Day includes events for people of all ages -- kids, young adults and older folk. It's no longer just a day of naked frolics in Peaceful Valley -- no, Spokane's celebration of Earth Day now features community service activities, a documentary with Willie Nelson and plenty of food.
Compiled by Tammy Marshall
& lt;li & COUNCIL BENEFIT & r & The Lands Council of Spokane will hold a dinner and auction on April 18 at 5 pm. Tickets: $60; $375 per table. Northern Quest Casino, 100 N. Hayford Rd., Airway Heights, Wash. (209-2852) & lt;/li &
& lt;li & SPOKANE EARTH DAY & r & Music, speakers, kids activities and a film festival will all be a part of this event on April 19 at 11 am. Free. Riverfront Park, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. (535-1613)
& lt;li & SPOKANE RIVER RESTORATION DAY & r & Wear your work clothes and join others in removing noxious weeds and planting native species along the river in Peaceful Valley on April 20 from 9 am-noon. Free. Sandifur Memorial Bridge, Peaceful Valley (209-2852)
& lt;li & EARTH DAY POTLUCK & r & A presentation on bike commuting and a celebration of the Earth will be on April 21 at 1:30 pm. Free. Riverpoint Campus, 600 N. Riverpoint Blvd. (358-7500)
& lt;li & BIKE PLAN OPEN HOUSE & r & The city of Spokane is updating its master bike plan. You can provide input on April 22 from 6-8 pm. Southside Senior Activity Center, 3151 E. 27th Ave. Another open house will be on April 24 from 7-9 pm. West Central Community Center, 1603 N. Belt St. A final discussion will be on April 29 from 6-8 pm. Northeast Community Center, 4001 N. Cook St. spokaneplanning.org (625-6300)
& lt;li & WORLD TAI CHI AND QIGONG DAY & r & As part of a worldwide healing event, the stress-reducing exercise will be performed on April 26 at 10 am. Free. Riverfront Park, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. (499-1264)
& lt;li & FIRST BIG RIDE & r & A bike ride of 15, 25, 50 or 100 miles will raise funds for a local Rotary Club on April 27 beginning at 7:30 am. Cost: $28-$38. SFCC, 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr. www.northdivision.com Call: (999-7770)
& lt;li & TIBETAN NUN ON PEACE & r & Thubten Chodron will speak about finding inner peace despite the conditions of the world, on April 18 at 7 pm and on April 19 at 10 am. Free. NIC, Molstead Library, 1000 W. Garden Ave., Coeur d'Alene (208-769-3269)
& lt;li & CHIC EARTH-FRIENDLY BAGS & r & In a celebration for Earth Day, Huckleberry's will be giving away limited-edition bags with every $25 minimum purchase, on April 19-20 and April 22. 926 S. Monroe St. (624-1349)
& lt;li & INCANDESCENT SWITCH & r & Bring in your incandescent light bulbs and receive a CFL bulb on April 26. Free. Limit two per customer. Huckleberry's, 926 S. Monroe St. (624-1349)
& lt;li & SAVE OUR SHIRE & r & A festival showcasing various ways to save the environment will be from May 8-12 at various times. Tickets: $20; $40, per week; $80, per family. SOS Open-Air Experience and Eco Show, 101 Harry Pierce Rd., St. John, Wash. (509-648-3272)
& lt;li & FUNKY JUNK ANTIQUE SHOW & r & Arts, crafts and old stuff will be for sale to encourage people to buy old versus new on April 19-20 from 10 am-4 pm. Cost: $2. Oden Hall Grange, Hwy 200 on Sunnyside Rd., Sandpoint, Idaho (509-465-3945)
& lt;li & CHEWELAH EARTH DAY FAIR & r & Free food and clothes for all as well as recycled goods for sale on April 25 from 10 am-noon and on April 26 from 10 am-4 pm. Free. St. Paul Lutheran Church, 202 N. Second St., Chewelah, Wash. (509-935-7145)
& lt;li & UNVEIL THE TRAIL & r & Help REI and Friends of the Centennial Trail get the 37-mile course ready for spring on April 19 at 10 am. Bring garden gloves, rake, broom and trash bag. Riverside State Park, Bowl and Pitcher, 4427 N. Aubrey L. White Parkway (328-9900)
& lt;li & GEOCACHING & r & Grab your GPS device and learn the basics of this game on April 23 at 7 pm. Free. REI, 1125 N. Monroe St. (328-9900)
& lt;li & HOME IMPROVEMENT SHOW & r & Learn how to green and improve your home on March 18 from noon-7 pm, April 19 from 10 am-7 pm and on April 20 from 10 am-4 pm. Exchange your incandescent bulb for a CFL. Cost: $7; free, children 12 and younger. Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, 404 N. Havana St. (477-2774)
& lt;li & GREEN DRINKS & r & A grassroots meet-up of social networking for eco-professionals will discuss the state of the planet over cocktails every second Tuesday of the month. Free. Buy your own booze. Brooklyn Deli, 122 S. Monroe St. www.greendrinks.org; firstname.lastname@example.org
& lt;li & EARTH DAY IN SANDPOINT & r & Arts, crafts, music and local food will all be a part of this event on April 20 from 11 am-5 pm. Free. Sandpoint Community Hall, 204 S. First Ave., Sandpoint, Idaho (208-265-9565)
& lt;li & PEACEMAKER PRINCIPLES & r & A workshop with Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) elder Jake Swamp, who will pass on the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and their principles of peace, will be held April 26-27. Call for times. Cost: $165. Twin Eagles Wilderness School, 3308 Colburn Culver Rd., Sandpoint, Idaho (208-265-3685)
& lt;li & HOUSE GREENING FOR SENIORS & r & A volunteer from the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program will pick up your household hazardous waste and dispose of it. Also currently recruiting volunteers 55 years and older for various programs. (228-3193 or 344-7787)
& lt;li & SPOKANE RIVER KICKOFF & r & A celebration of the beginning of the boating season will be held April 19 from 10 am-5 pm. Free. Corbin Park, 408 N. Spokane St., Post Falls, Idaho (325-9806)
& lt;li & GREEN FILM & r & The film *Revolution Green: A True Story of Biodiesel in America w/ Willie Nelson* will be shown on April 18 at 10:30 am. Free. SFCC, SUB, 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr. (434-5150)
& lt;li & ELECTRONIC DISPOSAL DAY & r & Drop off your difficult-to-dispose-of electronic items on April 19 from 10 am-7 pm. Free. Limit two laptops and two monitors per household. Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, 404 N. Havana St. (280-5805)
& lt;li & OIL AND WATER & r & The story of two kayakers who embark on a petroleum-free road trip will be shown on April 19 at 7 pm. Cost: $6. Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave. (747-3012)
GOLD FOR GREEN
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & part from the grass, it doesn't look very green from the outside -- but there's more to Lincoln Heights Elementary than meets the eye. Designed and built as a model of sustainability with features like paneling made of compressed wheat stubble, it is one of the most earth-friendly schools in the state. It's also the first project of any kind east of the Cascades to earn a gold-level certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program -- a national benchmark for the design and construction of high-performance green buildings.
"It's an overall thought process in design that we put into the buildings," says project architect Chuck Crane of Integrus Architecture. "The emphasis and focus of the LEED program is pretty much sustainability -- basically to use less resources, to recycle resources and to limit how far products travel to build a building. It also deals with the energy consumption of the building." The district accumulated points toward sustainable school certification by picking projects from a LEED checklist.
To that end, the building's design maximizes the use of natural daylight to lower energy usage -- with the added benefit of providing a better learning environment for students. The position of the building and the rooms within it, structures on the roof and large windows with "light shelves" all flood the building with natural light. According to a video on the Superintendent of Public Instruction's Website, which features Lincoln Heights as an example, numerous studies have proven that students perform better in natural light.
"All through construction -- up until the day we did the punch list -- they never had the lights on because they didn't need to use them," Crane says of the school's gymnasium. "Even when they were painting. The principal says they still very seldom turn them on." Sensors in the classrooms turn some lights off automatically when daylight is at or above certain levels. The smart building also knows when a room is vacant -- and shuts the lights off.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course, green means recycling wherever possible, and visitors can see benches, stair treads and countertops made from Glu-lam beams recovered from the roof of the old building. "When they demolished the building, they didn't just tear it down and throw everything in one heap and haul it off," says Dennis Cihak, a project manager for District 81. "We got points for separating stuff out and recycling -- the contractor did that during the design process."
Concrete and asphalt from the demolition were crushed and reused in backfill. Playground equipment, shelving and cabinetry were refurbished and reused wherever possible. The building also got LEED points from the use of paints, adhesives and carpets with low levels of chemical emissions. Principal Mike McGinnis says that there was no "new building smell" when the doors opened.
"Another thing we looked at was how much of the material being designed into the building could be acquired within a relatively small geographical area," Cihak says. "That cuts transportation costs, fossil fuels to truck it here, and gets points under the LEED system."
Stained concrete floors eliminate linoleum and the chemicals and equipment needed to maintain it. "It may seem like a little thing," Cihak says, "but when you start adding them all up, the little things make a big difference."
Little things -- like waterless urinals that save an estimated 50,000 gallons of water per year. It just doesn't get any greener than that, does it?
Crane says that longevity was also considered. When choosing exterior materials, he says, they were thinking of a building that would last more than 50 years, "instead of 10- to 15-year strip mall-type construction."
"The momentum is there for everyone to do this," says Art Nordling, principal architect at Integrus. "I mean, it just makes sense in this day and age, especially with the price of materials, oil and everything going up. Recycling is in the forefront now."
Nordling says the additional cost of a LEED-certified project is difficult to calculate precisely, but estimates that it's about 2 to 4 percent. The higher the level of certification, the more it's likely to cost. The assumption, of course, is that long-term savings in utilities will compensate for increased construction cost.
In February, District 81 received an incentive rebate from Avista for about $70,000 for the environmental and energy saving measures adopted in the project.
The new Lidgerwood and Ridgeview elementary school projects also make use of green design and features, although they were not documented for LEED certification.
Lincoln Heights Elementary was a $12.2 million project funded primarily by the facility improvement bond approved by voters in 2003, along with some matching state funds. It was selected as one of a handful of schools in districts throughout Washington to be part of a pilot program to test sustainability strategies and standards adopted by the state in 2005. Similar to LEED, the Washington Sustainable School Protocol is now a requirement for any schools that receive state funds.
"The thing I've noticed is that the teachers are very pleased by the building structure itself," McGinnis says, noting that the air quality in the facility is excellent, reducing problems with allergies. "It's a pleasant place to be."
-- MICK LLOYD-OWEN
BIKES TO THE RESCUE
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n a cover story The Inlander published two years ago, we went looking for the elusive cyclist in a city that, while hypothetically near nature and near perfect, wasn't widely considered friendly to bikers. Turned out they weren't too hard to find. We met Lycra-clad club riders on the Palouse Highway and trail-building mountain bikers near Riverside State Park. We met a state champion road racer and a nationally recognized dirt biker.
But while cycling seemed alive and well in pockets of the Lilac City, you still didn't see many bikes out on the streets. Even active cyclists told us that as much as they loved their bikes, they weren't crazy enough to ride them around the potholed, high-speed, mean streets of the city. The feeling among some was that while Spokane was full of great cyclists and great cycling, the city hadn't done nearly enough to make it a great cycling city -- the kind where even amateur riders could feel safe biking to work, to the grocery store, to downtown bars (common sights in cycling Meccas like Madison, Wisc. and Davis, Calif.).
But in the two years since we published that story, we've seen more cyclists -- of all stripes -- in the city than ever before. Meanwhile, local governments at all levels have begun to embrace the bike as a means to reduce emissions, relieve congestion, promote economic development and boost the local quality of life. Almost every major jurisdiction in the area is currently examining its bike policy. That would've been hard to imagine two years ago.
Here's a roundup of the dizzying array of bike plans percolating in the Inland Northwest right now.
THE SPOKANE PLAN
The city of Spokane hasn't updated its bike plan in 20 to 30 years, and a lot has changed since then (mountain bikes were invented, for instance). Last year, the city's citizen-led Bicycle Advisory Board began pushing for the city to take a thorough, holistic look at how Spokane's network of bike facilities and amenities connects and what can be done to make cycling safe enough to encourage new commuters. It's a daunting challenge. "If you ride a bike around Spokane, you'll know it's kind of a disconnected system," says city planner Ken Pelton. Indeed, a map produced in the process shows the difference between streets designated in the Comp Plan as needing bike lanes and those that have actually been striped. It reads like Morse code, with bike lanes disappearing and reappearing in a dashed, haphazard way.
But the city is reaching out to the public to ask where -- and when -- bike lanes would be most appropriate. Pelton says the city is especially curious about the public's input on the north-side Maple/Ash couplet. The Comp Plan currently calls for full bike lanes there. But is that what people want? Or would they rather have just a widened lane? Or a bike lane on a parallel side street? They're also looking at bicycle boulevards (streets that make it hard for car traffic to speed through but easy for bikes) and bike parking.
Pelton, Eastern Washington University intern Joel Soden and members of the Bicycle Advisory Board will be fielding questions, presenting their maps and seeking input at three open houses over the next two weeks, in three different areas of the city (see box on this page). One of the things they hope to end up with, Pelton says, is "a set of action items ... that the city would automatically do as part of its day-to-day operations," baking bike facilities into the on-the-ground checklist, rather than just in a plan on a shelf back at the office.
THE REGIONAL PLAN
While Spokane figures out the minutia of its bike system, the Spokane Regional Transportation Council is ironing out the entire region's goals. The federally mandated planning organization for the county has, in a 92-page document, articulated its rationale and goals for funding, assessed current biking behaviors, taken stock of the region's bike facilities inventory and outlined its top priorities (including completing the Fish Lake Trail and improving connections across the Spokane River).
Part of the impetus for the planning was to get the area in line for upcoming fund re-authorization. A big chunk of it deals with an ongoing study that threw $100 million of federal money at four communities (Minneapolis, Sheboygan, Wisc., Marin County, Calif., and Columbia, Mo.) to use for non-motorized transport projects. Come 2010, the study will examine what effect the funding had on transportation choices.
Spokane County is being used as the control group in this study, but it hopes to receive similar funding in 2010, when Congress will decide whether to reauthorize its non-motorized funding. "We are working to make sure Spokane's name is in the ring if that money becomes available," says Eve Nelson, the study's author and a senior transportation planner at SRTC. "If we can bring in some money, maybe [engineers] will start thinking of ways to use it." If reauthorized, the fund could offer $50 million to each city it wishes.
A draft version of Nelson's report was inspected by SRTC's board on Friday. They "seemed interested," says Nelson. She hopes the plan will be adopted at next month's meeting. The deadline for applying for the federal jackpot is in June. (Public comment is due on www.srtc.org by April 29.)
THE STATE PLAN
Washington state is currently updating its Bicycle Facilities and Pedestrian Walkways Plan, with public comment open through May. The study probes public opinion on cycling, assesses facility and safety conditions (four graphs analyze bike crash data) and points toward funding for bike and pedestrian programs. The plan can be found at www.wsdot.wa.gov, under "Bicycling." Representatives from the state will also be on-hand at the city's April 24 open house (see sidebar).
THE COUNTY PLAN
After four years of public input, the county has finally (almost) finished its regional trails plan, and "every trail in there is bicycle-able," says Inland Northwest Trails Coalition president Lunell Haught. The plan, says Haught, points out all the routes in the county, across jurisdictions, and will make it easier for developers who want to build around the trails to compete for grants. County commissioners still need to perform their final findings and sign off on the plan before it becomes officially adopted.
THE DOWNTOWN PLAN
City planner Ken Pelton says that while the city is looking at the larger scope of the city's bike network, it's mostly leaving downtown issues -- connection, signage, parking -- to the Downtown Spokane Partnership, the nonprofit business alliance that is currently updating its 10-year plan for the city's downtown. Spokeswoman Marla Oleniacz says the extensive public input process has netted many ideas for cycling facilities, but that it has nothing solid to report yet. "Biking is a definite part of it," she says. "The idea of bike lockers has come up, bike paths and bike lanes." Oleniacz says the plan is due to be presented to the city in August or September.
Plans for this year's Bike-to-Work week (May 12-16) are already in full swing, and the five-day event looks to be bigger than ever. Sponsored by Unico, REI and the city of Spokane (among many others) and spearheaded by WSU Spokane spokeswoman Barb Chamberlain, the week will entail a kickoff breakfast, several safety classes, educational programs in area elementary schools, a wrap-up party at the Steam Plant Grill (with prizes!) and five days of putting the mettle to the pedal. "It's an issue whose time has come," says Chamberlain, who adds that 60 people registered to ride in the first week. Find out more at Biketoworkspokane.org.
THE SOCIAL PLANS
Governments aren't the only ones building the bike network these days. The bike community itself is coming together, and Spokane has begun to see the kinds of events that Portlanders have enjoyed for years but that local cyclists complained were missing when we wrote our cover story two years ago.
One is the F**king Bike Club, a casual get-together on the night of every full moon that generally entails drinking beer, riding to the next bar and talking about bikes. Last month's ride was the biggest in the group's nine-month history. The next installment is this Sunday night, beginning at 9 pm at the Pear Tree Inn (3011 S. Grand Blvd.).
Earlier in the day, though, cyclists will be gathering at Bennidito's Pizza on South Lincoln Street to watch the notorious Paris-Roubaix bike race on Versus (part of the network's beefed-up coverage of professional cycling). "Think of it as a Bike Summit," writes John Speare on the blog for Pedals2People, the nonprofit, bike-centric group organizing the event. While the various upcoming planning open houses are sure to draw die-hard cyclists, this meet-up may be just as important, and just as productive.
Add to this the arrival of Joe De Godoi, a former bike technician for the professional Gerolsteiner racing team in Germany, who opened a bike shop at 57th and Regal on Spokane's South Hill last weekend and hopes to make it a hub (so to speak) for the bike community and a gateway to the popular rural bike routes to the south.
For once, it's local cyclists trying to match the pace of the government, not the other way around.
-- JOEL SMITH
The Right Bulb, Done Right
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne of the first steps many environmental groups recommend for saving energy in your home is swapping out your old, low-tech incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent ones, which burn just as bright but are much more efficient. One local group, the Northwest Climate Change Center, says if a little more than half of Spokane's households made the switch, they would save enough energy to run a light rail line from the airport to Coeur d'Alene.
But what makes the bulbs so efficient is also what makes them problematic: mercury, the same neurotoxin that environmentalists have been fighting for decades to keep out of rivers and industry. Each bulb contains a trace amount of mercury, about equivalent to the amount of ink on the end of a ballpoint pen. That's about a hundredth of the amount of mercury in an old-fashioned home thermometer. (And in the scheme of things, fluorescent use could reduce the need to burn carbon for electricity, thus lowering the overall level of mercury in the environment.)
Still, caution is needed when it's time to toss compact fluorescent bulbs, or if one happens to break. The EPA urges consumers to recycle the bulbs (at Earthworks Recycling, in Spokane) to prevent mercury from getting into the environment. Wrap them in plastic bags first. If a bulb breaks, open windows to ventilate the room, pick up shards with stiff paper or cardboard (not a broom or vacuum), and use a wet paper towel or sticky tape to pick up the rest. Wrap it all in plastic and toss it.
-- JOEL SMITH
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he mayor of Seattle held a big press conference earlier this month to announce his big, new proposal: a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags at supermarkets and convenience stores. A portion of the proceeds would go to buy every Seattle household a reusable tote.
Newspapers across the country published glowing articles about the mayor's announcement. One of the stories landed in the e-mail of Spokane City Councilman Richard Rush, who's now wondering if the city can create a program of its own.
"It seems like this would fit right in with the city's sustainability task force," Rush says. "If Seattle and others are doing it, I don't think we should wait to consider it."
Rush says he began researching the topic after reading an article that a constituent e-mailed him. He's also asked a researcher to examine the actual cost of these bags, from creation to disposal, and how much falls on the shoulders of the city.
At this point, Rush says he doesn't support a city-imposed tax per se, but would want the city to pressure retailers to charge the fees themselves. That way, the city would not have to administer the tax and retailers would have greater incentive to limit waste, he says. Over time, perhaps, the fee could increase from, say, a quarter, to 50 cents and later to a dollar.
"The idea is to get people off the bags, not to charge for the bags," he says. "It's an education piece, not a tax-collection piece. Why put this tax structure in place just to destroy the structure?"
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has heard some about Seattle's proposal and finds it "pretty exciting," but says she doesn't know enough details yet to say how it would work in Spokane. "I want to learn more about how it works exactly," she says.
Well, this is how it would work, exactly. If the Seattle City Council approves the proposal, the fee would be collected on both paper and plastic bags, starting on Jan. 1, 2009. Seattle Public Utilities estimates 360 million disposable bags are used in the city every year -- most are plastic and end up in landfills. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels also targeted paper bags because they are worse for the environment when you consider the impact of logging and shipping, city officials say.
"The answer to the question 'paper or plastic' is neither -- both harm the environment. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us. The best way to handle a ton of waste is not to create it," Nickels says.
Last year, San Francisco became the first city to ban plastic bags outright, while still allowing paper ones without a fee. Nickels, however, decided to model his program on one in Ireland, which, officials say, reduced the use of disposable bags by 90 percent.
The "green fee" would bring in about $10 million a year, according to estimates, and $1 million would go directly to distributing reusable shopping bags and promoting their use. Other monies would be used for waste prevention, recycling and educational programs. (Store owners would keep 5 cents to cover administrative costs and small businesses -- those grossing less than $1 million -- would get to keep the entire 20-cent fee.)
Nickels' proposal was met with mostly positive reviews, although people working with the poor and elderly worried that it would place a hefty toll on vulnerable populations. Jack Lilienthal of Goodwill Industries in Spokane shares that concern. He says that if Spokane were to create a similar program, the city would have to accommodate poor families.
"Anything that adds to the cost to low-income folks is not just an inconvenience. It can be devastating," Lilienthal says, adding, "I love the idea, though. I'm about as green as I can get."
-- JACOB H. FRIES
FROM EARTH DAY TO RIVER REGULATION
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter a solid year researching and writing the technical document meant to regulate the impact of Avista's dams on the Spokane River -- a document that was criticized for being weak as soon as it was released this month -- Marcie Mangold had it up to here last Friday.
Up to here in the river itself, that is. The Washington Department of Ecology project manager wrestled herself into chest waders and, in company with some Ecology biologists, went splorking around in the river to see if rainbow trout and the native redband trout were making babies yet.
They weren't. The water was still a tad too cold last week, even for amorous fish. But they're close.
"They are hanging out and making their redds," Mangold says, describing the trout's little spawning nests made in river bottom gravels. "They dig a hole and hang around saying, 'Hey, check it out.' They do a little swim dance ... chase off the other fish.
"That's what I love about here," Mangold says. "Right here is I-90 -- Rrruuurrrmmmm! -- and here we are wading around and the water's really cold ... and there are some 16-inchers in there."
On the eve of the 39th celebration of Earth Day, the Spokane remains that rare river racing through the middle of a fair-sized city with waters cold and clear enough to support a trout fishery.
The fishery -- and the river itself -- are not without perils such as industrial and sewage pollution along with lead, arsenic and zinc washed down from Idaho's Silver Valley. But the peril to fish and river health in the spotlight now is not a contamination source, but rather the hydropower dams operated by Avista Utilities.
The private utility operates five hydropower dams on the Spokane River, four in Washington. Dams factor into the river's health through sedimentation, lower oxygen levels and higher water temperatures in slow-moving reservoirs.
Now, for the first time, Ecology gets a say about dam operations in the document released this month, known as a 401 Water Quality Certification.
"It's an important decision point, and this is a very important permit that is being issued," says Rachael Paschal Osborn, director of Spokane's Center for Environmental Law and Policy.
Important because federal licenses to operate dams can last a half-century, and this is the first time the Avista dams are up for relicensing since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) now brings environmental concerns into the mix, thus the requirement that Ecology weigh in with the 401 Certification.
Osborn and others say Ecology is not being tough enough setting standards for Avista that may last for decades. Among the key concerns are regulating water flow to protect spawning habitat for the native redbands and other trout, and addressing the low dissolved oxygen levels in Lake Spokane, the reservoir behind Long Lake Dam, that contributes to algae blooms.
But the biggest twist in the 401 Certification is the fight over so-called aesthetic flows, in essence preventing Avista from "turning off" the river in summer as it runs through downtown and using the water solely for power generation.
As the river flows decrease after spring runoff, Avista routes water through the south channel (fronting the Opera House and carrousel) to run through its Upper Falls power plant near the YMCA. The plant generates 10 megawatts, Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof says, or the electricity for 759 homes.
The utility has proposed releasing 200 cubic feet per second of water into the north channel for the downtown waterfalls, Ecology would like 300 cfs, and most people -- according to focus groups conducted by Avista -- would like 500.
"The cfs was argued right up until two days before we put out the 401 Cert," says Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert. "It's been a big topic of discussion for some time."
The river median flow during the dry months, says Avista's Imhof, is around 1,100 cfs. But in dry years the flow can dip to 600 to 800 cfs, he says, which may not be enough for both aesthetics and power generation.
"The Upper Falls plant can technically run as low as 300 cfs, but we would probably shut down long before it got that low because it would damage the turbine," Imhof writes in an e-mail.
In an earlier telephone interview, Imhof says the utility would prefer 500 to 700 cfs for the Upper Falls power plant.
"These are archaic structures that don't generate very much electricity in the larger scheme of things," Paschal Osborn says. "The nameplate for all five dams is 137 megawatts. Compare that to Avista's two dams on the Clark Fork at 700, or to Grand Coulee at 6,800. We are not getting a lot (of electricity) out of this, but the dams have a lot of impacts."
The aesthetic flows, in naked terms, come down to a fight over whether the river serves private or public interests.
This twist of using the 401 Certification for water quantity as well as quality was forged in the 1990s in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Two of the attorneys in that case are watching this one -- Jay Manning, now director of Ecology, and Christine Gregoire, now governor.
Gregoire was the attorney who argued before the high court, convincing it -- in an opinion written by former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- that "you cannot talk about a river's quality without talking about flow," Paschal Osborn says. "Quality and quantity are inextricably linked. Flow affects oxygen. This is a very powerful tool, and really it's a new thing for the Department of Ecology."
A public meeting to discuss the river's dams is scheduled for Tuesday, April 22, beginning at 5 pm at CenterPlace Event Center, Mirabeau Point Park in Spokane Valley. Mirabeau Point is between Pines and Evergreen along Euclid. CenterPlace is near the YMCA.