CHELAN GORGE UNPLUGGED

Posted: 10/27/2000
by John Gangemi


By John Gangemi

On July 8th, 9th, and 10th a team of six boaters got a ticket. That ticket issued by Chelan Public Utilities District was a highly prized item. It granted each paddler access to the unrun Chelan Gorge in central Washington. That ticket also carried a heavy burden of responsibility for each boater: Prove to Chelan PUD and the surrounding community that the Chelan Gorge is boatable. These boaters accepted the challenge enthusiastically acting as ambassadors for the paddling community both on and off the river. At the end of the three day study there was no doubt that the Chelan Gorge was more than boatable-it was a premier whitewater destination. But even more telling was the fact that the community of Chelan and the PUD embraced the boaters.

This first descent of the Chelan Gorge was a high profile and controversial event. The descent was actually a study that itself was part of a larger hydropower relicensing proceeding for the Chelan hydropower project. The Chelan Gorge had never been run before due to water withdrawals for hydropower generation. Many stakeholders in the relicensing process opposed whitewater studies. Some stakeholders felt the Gorge was not "survivable". Other stakeholders in the local community feared whitewater releases would lower lake levels and raise electric rates. The Chelan PUD was primarily concerned with liability lawsuits. Upon completion of the whitewater flow study most of these concerns evaporated. Most of the parties in this relicense recognized that whitewater is a legitimate use of the Chelan Gorge and can be balanced with continued hydropower generation and other resource needs.

This hydropower relicense first caught my interest when I received the physical description of the river channel below the dam: "A four mile long channel dropping 400 feet in elevation much of that in the last 1.5 miles." My interest was further peaked when I read the fisheries report describing 20-30 foot falls acting as barriers to upstream fish migration. After attending my first relicensing meeting in Chelan I hiked down into the Gorge. I knew immediately that the Chelan Gorge was a future whitewater classic. I stood on the bedrock of the rapid now called entrance exam and marveled at the gradient. With only 5 cfs trickling through the rocks it was difficult to see the lines but I could certainly imagine where the crux was situated in that drop. Since that first look I've committed myself to getting an annual schedule of whitewater releases into the Chelan Gorge. At times that path has been a steep uphill battle.

Chelan Lake is a natural lake carved by glaciers. The lake is 55 miles long and 1500 feet deep. At the turn of the century several dams were constructed at the lake outlet to raise lake elevations for power generation. Several of these dams were lost to high water overtopping the dams. The present dam was constructed in 1927. It diverts 2100 cfs of water around the 4 mile long Chelan Gorge to a powerhouse at the confluence with the Columbia River. The minimum instream flow below the dam is approximately 5 cfs although the dam spills each spring with flows averaging between 2000 and 6000 cfs.

I've seen video footage of 2000 and 4000 cfs in the Chelan Gorge shot from the canyon rim. Trust me, it's a whitewater nightmare. Spills within the boatable range of 200 to 500 cfs rarely if ever occur due to the projects ability to control flows within this range. I proposed early in the relicense process that a recreational controlled flow study (see sidebar for description) be conducted for the Chelan Gorge. In June 1999 I traveled to observe a series of flows in the Chelan Gorge with consultants Bo Shelby and Doug Whittaker. The three of us scrambled around in the Gorge observing three flows between 250 and 500 cfs that June day. Our purpose was to identify flows appropriate for the boating component of the controlled flow study. The rapids looked hard but runnable. I was anxious to put a boat on the water but respected Chelan PUD's wishes that no one boat the Gorge until the liability issues had been covered. It was on that June day that I suddenly became aware that the Chelan Gorge was not simply another bypass channel where American Whitewater was attempting to restore whitewater flows. The Chelan Gorge was more than just another whitewater run: The emerald green water turned white as it cascaded over steep drops collecting again into crystal clear pools contrasting sharply with the multi-colored lichens on the metamorphic rock of the Gorge walls. The water transformed the Gorge into a whitewater cathedral.

In the ensuing year I worked closely with Chelan PUD and their consultants developing a whitewater controlled flow study appropriate for the Chelan Gorge. We selected three flows to be paddled over a three-day period; 275, 350 and 450 cfs. During the study we actually boated 273, 391 and 475 cfs as measured by the USGS. The study design required each boater to complete a survey questionnaire after each run to record the quality of the experience. At the completion of the all three flows each boater would complete a comparative survey form to measure attributes of one flow against another. The data from these survey responses is presented graphically in Figure 1.

A year after visiting the Gorge, my anxiety was high when I arrived in Chelan the day before the controlled flow study. I questioned whether the spell of the Gorge the year before had clouded my judgment. The team of boaters arriving for the flow study were excellent paddlers. I'd selected each individual for several reasons: 1) I knew each of them had excellent Class V boating skills complimented with good judgment; 2) each had demonstrated safety and rescue skills; 3) each of them would carry word about the Chelan Gorge back to their respective paddling communities; and 4) most important these individuals would serve as ambassadors for our sport with the community of Chelan and the PUD. I was unsure how we would function as a team since some of the boaters had never met. I elected to burn off some of my anxiety that evening by running down to the Gorge. My first glimpse from the Canyon Rim reaffirmed my convictions from the previous year-the Chelan Gorge is a whitewater cathedral. I raced back along the road excited to share my enthusiasm. The boaters were just arriving.

The Caravel Resort in Chelan was kind enough to provide the boaters three rooms overlooking the 55 mile lake. The North Cascades form the backdrop as you look up this spectacular lake. We were in heaven or I should say shock with the accommodations and treatment. As I approached the front desk the clerk handed me a key before any words escaped from my mouth. No credit card, no signature, nothing. I joked with the clerks pretending I receive this treatment everywhere. To my surprise one of the clerks asked, "Are you pros?" Caught off guard I started to laugh then corrected myself and responded "Absolutely!" People have confused me with Wayne Gretzky on the street but never on the ice. The same is true for my paddling. I just hoped the desk clerk didn't know enough about paddling to recognize I wasn't a pro.

When we arrived at the study orientation Saturday morning we found the six of us outnumbered 5 to 1 with folks working on the flow study. A professional camera crew was recording your every move with four digital video cameras. Disrobing to put on paddling gear was a futile affair with all the folks curious about all the kayak specific gear, shooting photos and recording your thoughts for newspaper stories. The sheriff flew in the rescue helicopter expecting to transport our bodies later in the day. Of course we posed for pictures in front of the helicopter.

Finally we were able to get on the water. The first 2.5 miles is low gradient Class II. At the lowest flow of 275 cfs this section was boney. We were pleasantly surprised by some Class IV rapids to warm up when the canyon walls came together forming the Gorge. The first big rapid was Entrance Exam. We scouted this drop carefully. A crew of folks including the videographers hiked down daybreak canyon to meet us at Entrance Exam.
The boaters discussed the rapid, safety and potential rescue scenarios. Britt Gentry gave the thumbs up while the rest of us took safety positions with ropes and boats. Britt's line was clean if not eye opening as he plunged off the horseshoe shaped falls cleanly and made the remainder of the run look easy. One by one we hiked up to our boats to run the rapid. The group of boaters was working as a team far beyond my expectations. So well in fact that when I swam out of the hole now named Professor Gnarly at the bottom of Entrance Exam they had me to shore in no time.

A short distance of Class IV paddling brought us to Double Slide, the next major rapid. As with Entrance Exam upstream, the solid bedrock was excellent for scouting the rapid and setting up safety. The air temperature in the Gorge was in the high 90's. The water temperature was 75 degrees allowing us to paddle in shorties. Scrambling around on the bedrock slabs to shoot photos and set up safety was nearly as much fun as paddling. The Gorge felt like a Caribbean adventure.

Double Slide offered two routes: A sneak route on river left that required squeezing your boat just left of a rock guarding entry into the chute or the more committing right chute forcing you into a steep plunge and a powerful hydraulic. The Class IV entry forced errors making some of us miss the sneak route only to be funneled against our wishes into the right side line. This right line took on several names during the three days. I like "Chelam" the best because of the inevitable consequences at the bottom.

Below Double Slide is an extraordinarily beautiful eight foot falls. The emerald green water spills from the pool below double slide in an arc of color before crashing into a powerful hydraulic below. You can avoid the hydraulic by boofing off the bedrock slab on river left to land in the pool below. Forrest Hubler referred to this as "Super Boof" after running it. The name stuck.

A short pool below Super Boof brings you to the Class V Throne Falls. This twenty-five foot falls can be scouted on the river right and left. The falls is slightly less than vertical. Several rocks midway down the drop get your attention. We ran this right right of center with left, center and right bow angles. A left bow angle points you at three large boulders in the pool below situated together to form a Throne hence the name. Throne Falls was a great to run at flows of 275 cfs and 390 cfs. At 475 cfs we took this drop more seriously largely because the recovery time in the pool below was shortened. Making the eddy on river right to portage Pinnacle became that much more important. We all made the eddy without any problems but most of us had to roll before paddling to the eddy.

We looked long and hard at Pinnacle. Tracey Clapp obligatorily tossed some logs into the current to judge current velocities, angles and spanking factor. Much of the river moves from left to right over two vertical drops. The water slams into the undercut river right wall-not a good place to be. Locals have spray painted the rocks above Pinnacle "Go Big or Go Home". None of us were falsely inspired by this slogan so we swallowed our pride and portaged this rapid on river right. The portage gave us an opportunity to display our teamwork passing boats over some ledges to a seal launch. A short paddle across a pool brought us to Boulder Sieve, a mandatory portage. We made light work of this portage by having one member of the team pull us onto a slab of rock on river left and seal launch us into the pool below.

Below Boulder Sieve the gradient eased presenting continuous Class IV paddling through tight boulders. There were several play spots in this section. We called the area upstream of the bridge Extra Credit to compliment the initial Class V drop, Entrance Exam. There is a nasty and difficult to detect sieve in the very bottom end of the rapid below the old highway bridge. We did a sneak around this on river right.

A crowd of reporters greeted us at the take-out. Many onlookers were shocked to see us boaters embrace each other at the take-out. For us it was a gesture of thanks, elation, and most importantly a celebration of friendship made stronger through adventure. Staff from the Chelan PUD and citizens of Chelan recognized in admiration the strong bond created by this descent of the Chelan Gorge. From that point forward the crowd recognized the immeasurable value of whitewater releases into the Chelan Gorge. Through the act of paddling and the camaraderie we demonstrated why the Chelan Gorge is so important as a whitewater resource.


Figure 1: Survey evaluations of various flows, with median specified flow ranges for two types of boating opportunities (courtesy Confluence Research and Consulting).

Safety and liability were chief concerns in this flow study. American Whitewater worked closely with Chelan PUD and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over a two year period addressing both the safety and liability concerns. American Whitewater feared that safety and liability concerns would be used as a scapegoat to prevent scheduled whitewater releases into the Chelan Gorge. The Federal Power Act requires that the public be permitted unhindered access to project lands except where project works present a safety hazard. The Chelan Gorge is not part of the project works. Furthermore, the Chelan Gorge is part of the public trust. As such, the paddling community should have free access to the Gorge. To their credit, Chelan PUD recognized our right to access the Gorge for paddling and worked hard to develop a mutually agreeable scenario to allow the whitewater controlled flow study.

Chelan PUD was genuinely impressed with the boating ability of the flow study participants but liability remains one of their chief concerns. The utility is concerned that scheduled whitewater releases will attract boaters that lack Class V skills. American Whitewater has attempted to relieve Chelan PUD's anxiety by explaining that whitewater boating is self-regulating. As boaters progress in skill they begin tackling more difficult water. Commensurate with that skill development is an increasing awareness and knowledge of safety and rescue techniques. Lastly, boaters inquire amongst friends and the paddling community at large to determine if they are ready for a particular river segment. These factors weigh together influencing an individuals judgment whether to paddle a river such as the Chelan Gorge. It's likely that all boaters will be required to sign liability waivers to protect Chelan PUD. American Whitewater will work with the Chelan PUD to develop these release forms.

Chelan PUD's safety concerns are primarily driven by fear of liability. Chelan is a public utility district. Any lawsuits resulting from whitewater injuries or death would affect all the ratepayers. As a private landowner Chelan PUD is protected from liability suits under the state recreational use statute. Many states have recreational use statutes (contact American Whitewater for list of states with rec. statutes). These statutes benefit both the landowner and the public because they protect landowners from liability suits thus encouraging landowners to allow the public access for recreation. A recent case in Washington has raised concerns that the hydro operators are not protected by recreation statutes if they manipulate flows creating an unnatural condition. American Whitewater is working with Chelan PUD to close this loophole in the Washington recreational statute. American Whitewater has also offered to come to Chelan PUD's defense if a whitewater boater files a suit against the utility involving a condition for which Chelan PUD was not negligent or did not create a latent hazard in the Chelan Gorge.

The success of this whitewater controlled flow study is a reflection of the high quality individuals that participated. The boaters (Rick Williams, Tracey Clapp, Britt Gentry, Forrest Hubler and Bo Shelby) did a tremendous job on and off the water. These folks were true ambassadors for our sport. Chelan PUD for all their reluctance in the initial stages of this relicense process provided critical support to make this study a success. Once the PUD decided to do a flow study they committed themselves 110 percent. Special thanks go out to Michele Smith and Jeff Osborn from Chelan PUD. These individuals devoted long hours over the three day study and were very accommodating to the boaters needs. Numerous other PUD staff were also on hand to make this a positive outcome. Bo Shelby and Doug Whittaker did an excellent job putting together a study design all parties supported. Together this team of people produced what is sure to be one of the best whitewater controlled flow studies conducted in a hydropower relicense.

I'll be working closely with Chelan PUD developing an annual schedule of whitewater releases for the new hydropower license. That schedule will be implemented sometime after 2004 when the new license is issued by the FERC. In the meantime please do not paddle the Chelan Gorge. This may jeopardize future releases. American Whitewater will be sure to announce the schedule of releases when it is solidified. You can visit our website to see still photos and video clips of the flow study at www.americanwhitewater.org.


Mechanics of a Recreation Controlled Flow Study

Recreation controlled flow studies are designed to identify minimum acceptable and optimum water volumes for flow dependent recreation. The actual methodology is described on page 40 in a publication released by the National Park Service Instream Flows for Recreation: A Handbook on Concepts and Research Methods by Whittaker et. al. The dam operator releases a pre-determined range of flows selected by whitewater experts with site specific knowledge in a controlled fashion. A team of boaters in a variety of watercraft paddle each flow. Upon completion of each flow participants respond to a series of survey questions designed to record the quality of the experience at that flow. Once all the flows are paddled participants complete a comparative survey form that measures the whitewater attributes of one flow against another. The data generated from participant responses helps develop a flow preference curve identifying minimum acceptable and optimum flows for each watercraft. Typically, kayaks have a much larger range of flows acceptable for a given river segment than rafts. The data generated from a whitewater controlled flow study is specific to the reach being paddled by participants. This data is not applicable to other segments on the same river or other rivers.

The controlled flow study is a critical component in a hydropower relicense proceeding for boaters. This study sets the stage for future whitewater flows. The study enables the paddling community to identify specific volumes that optimize whitewater recreation. Scheduled whitewater releases may require a utility to generate when power prices are low or, in the case where powerhouses are located some distance downstream from the dam, release water into the natural river channel thus foregoing power generation altogether. Both scenarios incur financial losses to the utility and obviously they will try to low-ball the volumes to reduce lost revenue. The flow study documents the flows necessary for optimal whitewater recreation. Furthermore, pinpointing the optimum flows helps maximize whitewater use thus helping to justify the release.

In 1986 Congress amended the Federal Power Act with the Electric Consumers Protection Act (ECPA). That act requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to give "equal consideration to non-power values" in hydropower licensing. Equal consideration does not equate to 50-50 split of the water but it does require mitigation of impacts such as lost whitewater opportunities.

American Whitewater is viewed as the national expert in whitewater controlled flow studies at hydropower facilities. American Whitewater was instrumental in whitewater controlled flow studies at Tallulah (GA), the Deerfield (MA), the Kennebec (ME), the Black (NY), the Nisqually (WA), Bear (ID) and the North Fork Feather (CA) to name a few. Most of these already have an annual schedule of whitewater releases. On the others we are awaiting FERCs licensing decision. This year alone American Whitewater has provided expertise and boaters for five whitewater controlled flow studies: Poe hydropower project (Class III, IV and V sections) and the Upper North Fork hydropower project (Class III, IV and V sections) both located on the North Fork Feather River (CA), Chelan Gorge (Class V-WA), Cheoah River (Class IV-NC), and the Waterbury hydropower project on the Little River (Class II-VT). American Whitewater is already at work on flow studies scheduled for 2001. This important work is supported to a large degree by monetary donations from our members. Your donation can help restore whitewater to a river near you.