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Sullivan Creek Dam Removal Agreement Reached! (WA)

Posted: 04/01/2010
by Kevin Colburn

On Monday, March 29, 2010, American Whitewater joined a diverse group of stakeholders in signing and submitting two inter-related settlement agreements that call for the continued operation of Boundary Dam on the Pend Oreille River, enhanced operation of Sullivan Dam on the natural Sullivan Lake, and the removal of Mill Pond Dam on Sullivan Creek.  The agreements are the culmination of over three years of consistent efforts to resolve issues related to the surrender of the Sullivan Project, located in northeastern Washington. 


In submitting these agreements, the US Forest Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, WA Department of Ecology, WA Department of Fish & Wildlife, American Whitewater, Lands Council, Selkirk Conservation Alliance, Kalispel Tribe and several members of the public support the continuation of power generation at Boundary Dam, while agreeing to the removal of the Mill Pond Dam, a major fish barrier.  In addition to addressing dam operations, these agreements provide for the protection and enhancement of fish and wildlife habitat, native species protection, improved public recreation facilities and programs, and commit to maintaining the regional quality of life enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.


American Whitewater first got involved with Sullivan Creek in the mid-nineties when the project owner sought to revive the hundred year old hydropower project that fell into disrepair and out of use in the 1950's. We worked with the state of Washington to conduct a whitewater flow study, but the proposed revitalization of the project never panned out.  Then, in 2007 the project owner asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to cease their regulation of the project.  FERC agreed, but fearing project abandonment and a risky precedent American Whitewater and the US Forest Service challenged the FERC decision and won.  This success triggered two years of monthly collaborative negotiation meetings in which diverse groups strived to reach an agreement that would protect Sullivan Creek and meet all the legal, recreational, and economic interests around the table. 


It was not easy.  It became readily apparent that Mill Pond Dam blocked passage of endangered bull trout, heated stream flows, and starved the downstream gorge of sediment.  Dam removal was the only reasonable alternative that would address these impacts, but this option was controversial.  Removal of Mill Pond Dam will provide potential access to more than 16 miles of spawning, rearing, overwintering and foraging habitat for native fish.  It was determined that Sullivan Dam, which raises Sullivan Lake and offers a host of recreational and economic values, would be allowed to remain in place but would be operated differently to significantly enhance native and sport fish populations, economically important angling opportunities, summer lake levels and stream flows, stream temperatures, fall paddling opportunities, and potentially revenue.  In a serendipitous arrangement the owner of a nearby large dam on the Pend Oreille River (Boundary Dam), into which Sullivan Creek flows, agreed to fund the removal of Mill Pond Dam and certain other enhancements to improve stream temperatures and habitat associated with their project.  


Paddlers will notice some big changes in the Sullivan Creek watershed over the next few years.  Beneath the Mill Pond and a layer of silt is a short gorge that contains whitewater rapids last seen over a century ago. These rapids will be uncovered by the dam removal efforts.  The new stream channel in the lower gradient reach upstream of this gorge will be restored, and recreational paddling will be considered in the design of any stabilization structures (ie rock and wood).  The two months of fall drawdown releases from Sullivan Lake that paddlers have enjoyed for years will soon begin in early September instead of early October, and will target optimal paddling levels.  They will also last fewer days because more water will be retained in the reservoir over winter and naturally flow in the spring and early summer.  For those fond of low flow experiences, summer flows in Sullivan Creek will be moderately increased. 


The complexity and creativity of this settlement can not be overstated.  Each member of the settlement group brought invaluable experience and ideas to the table. With the filing of these agreements, FERC will conduct its own environmental review of the proposal before making a final decision in 2012.  Upon that decision, environmental enhancements will begin.


AW would like to extend a special thank you to Chris Lambiotte and Becky Brown who provided AW stewardship director Kevin Colburn with engineering and ecological assistance (respectively), a tour of Sullivan Creek, and lodging and other support during the meetings which spanned 2 years.  


Watch a video of Lower Sullivan Creek in High Quality Here  by clicking on the "watch in high quality" link below the video, or just click on the video below for the low quality version.


Kevin Colburn
Asheville, NC

Associated Rivers



Associated Projects

Sullivan Creek (WA)
Two dams in the Sullivan Creek watershed no longer generate power. One was removed in 2017 as the result of a 2010 Settlement Agreement.