Spokane has all the ingredients but one -- the water. And it is not because the water isn't there. Sad to say, Upper Spokane Falls are dry in summer months not because nature made them that way, but because Avista Corporation is diverting all of the water into its Little Yellow Powerhouse, adjacent to the YMCA.
A free-flowing, central and accessible waterfall could be worth a lot to Spokane. It would certainly be a tourist attraction, something the Convention and Visitors Bureau could take to the bank. It would give proof to Spokane's motto, Near Nature Near Perfect. But sorry, no water. (Unless, of course, someone is making a movie.)
Dry falls look bad and do not provide economic benefits. So this river of water that Avista diverts into the Little Yellow Powerhouse must be quite valuable. Surely we would not squander the opportunities presented by a vibrant waterfall, right in the middle of our premier downtown park at the height of tourist season, unless it was worth a lot. Right?
In summer months, when river flows are low, the powerhouse contributes 2 to 3 megawatts (MW) to the grid. That translates to less than 1 percent of Avista's overall generating capability. The company's two Clark Fork dams are rated at 700 MW; Grand Coulee (for comparison) at 6,800 MW. The 2 MW of foregone power needed to restore Upper Spokane Falls are minuscule in the scheme of Northwest energy production.
Thankfully, the Department of Ecology has seen the light -- or water. As part of the re-licensing of Upper Falls Dam, the agency has said "enough" to a dry riverbed. For the first time in a century, Upper Spokane Falls will flow during summer months.
But how much water? Avista has convinced the agency that the Little Yellow Powerhouse must never shut down. Hence, the proposed allocation of 300 cfs to the waterfalls will not fully restore scenic values, but will keep the turbines running. As the photo illustrates, 300 cfs creates a trickle in the north channel. While Ecology could require Avista to restore the falls, will the agency do it? Or will half-measures carry the day as usual in Spokane?
This need not be a zero sum game. Certainly Spokane is more than capable of conserving 2 to 3 megawatts of power in order to restore Upper Falls. How about "Buck-a-Block" for the waterfalls? This could be a component of the city's new sustainability campaign.
The opportunity to restore Upper Spokane Falls will not come again for 30 to 50 years. It was 1972 when Upper Falls Dam was last licensed and Avista bequeathed dry falls to our fair city. If you think we can do better, visit www.celp.org and send a message to the Department of Ecology, asking them to "free the falls." If you are willing to conserve energy to restore the waterfalls, let us know that, too.
Rachael Paschal Osborn is executive director of the Center for Environmental Law & amp; Policy, a public interest group dedicated to restoring the rivers and aquifers of the Columbia River watershed. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (509)-209-2899