In 1986 FERC issued a license to Lewis County PUD to construct a new hydropower project at the site of Cowlitz Falls at the confluence where the Cispus River joins the Cowlitz River. The Cispus has a history of recreational use dating back to at least the early 1950's when members of the Washington Kayak Club explored this river. For several decades the river was a popular trip with summer outings typically including a day of boating and a day of picking huckleberries in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
In the first edition of his guidebook published in 1991, Jeff Bennett described Cowlitz Falls as follows:
The Falls begins with an exciting ride over rollercoaster waves, then through smaller waves before hurling boaters around a left bend and into more powerful hydraulics… at higher flows, the big waves that dominate Cowlitz Falls become minature versions of rapids like Granite on Hell's Canyon of the Lower Snake. This drop was dynamited and a 140 foot high dam now stands in its place.
While some of the historic river access points including the site lost by construction of the dam were informally available across private timber company lands, a project owner is required by the Federal Power Act to undertake “appropriate measures on behalf of both developmental and non-developmental public interest uses of the waterway, including fish, wildlife and recreation.” In this case providing public access was identified as a specific measure required as a condition of the utility accepting the license to build the project on a public waterway.
Specifically Article 42 of the license for FERC Project No. 2833 issued in June 1986 states in part: “The licensee shall, after consultation with the Friends of Whitewater, construct a boat ramp take-out facility at the head of the reservoir on the Cispus River so that boating use of that river will not be interrupted by project construction and operation.” This requirement was included in the license for two reasons:
- Construction of the project dam backed up water on the Cispus River to approximately 1.7 miles above its confluence with the Cowlitz, thereby eliminating whitewater rafting and kayaking in the project area.
- Creation of the project reservoir inundated a whitewater raft and kayak take-out located on the Cowlitz below its confluence with the Cispus.
While the project was completed in 1994, the required access was never fully provided. Inaction effectively “interrupted” use of the river for over a decade, contrary to the primary and plainly stated purpose of license Article 42. Local volunteers including Michael Deckert, Brooke Drury, Gary Korb, Carol Volk, and others participated in several meetings and logged an extensive record of correspondence on this issue.
Citing difficultly in securing the necessary agreements with private timber companies, the utility applied for a license amendment in 1996 asking that the required take-out facility, be moved from the head of the reservoir to the far side of the project reservoir, at the Cowlitz Falls Day Use Park. On March 26th, 1998 FERC issued an Order denying Lewis County PUD’s license amendment to change the location of a “boat and kayak take-out facility” required to be provided by license Article 42. FERC concluded that the proposed site would “substantially decrease the waterway’s value as a recreational resource” and reaffirmed the requirement for the utility to develop a take-out site on the Cispus River. As part of this Order, the Commission stated the following:
Within 120 days of issuance of this order, the licensee shall file a plan, developed in consultation with the American Whitewater Affiliation, Rivers Council of Washington, potentially-affected landowners, and the Washington Department of Ecology, to acquire all rights needed to provide public access to the existing take-out site on the north shore of the lower Cispus River, or to provide public access to an acceptable take-out site to be included within the project boundary at an alternative location on either the north or south shore of the lower Cispus River.
The 120 days came and went and several years had passed by the time local volunteers Chris Wittenfeld and Tina Myren joined the team working on restoring access to this wonderful river suitable for family-oriented trips and known for great wildlife viewing.
By letter to the utility on December 16th, 2004, FERC acknowledged the utility's efforts since the March 1998 Order but noted that no required plan or request to amend the license had been made. Consequently, the PUD filed a Rafter/Kayaker Take-Out Plan with FERC on May 31st, 2005. On July 18th, 2005 the Commission issued a Notice of Application for Approval of Amendment of License inviting the public to comment on the PUD’s proposal. In addition to American Whitewater the following clubs, businesses, and agenices provided comment representing whitewater recreation interests: National Park Service Rivers and Trails Program, Northwest Whitewater Association, Paddle Trails Canoe Club, Seattle Raft and Kayak, Sierra Club, The Mountaineers, University Kayak Club, Washington Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation, Washington Kayak Club, Washington Recreational River Runners, Wild and Scenic Institute, and Yakima Yakkers Kayak Club. Concerns were expressed with a complex and burdensome set of insurance requirements.
In response to comments Port Blakely, the private timber company that owned the private road providing access to the site, offered an alternative proposal whereby the public could drive to a site along a primary haul road that passes within approximately 1200' of the river. Under this proposal proof of liability insurance would not be required, but river runners would not be able to drive on the spur road to the river. American Whitewater recommended that the utility provide staffing to open and close the gate to the site on a daily basis to allow the take-out users to have vehicular access to the river. FERC did not accept our suggestion but noted that “the licensee, Port Blakely, and the whitewater boaters are not precluded from working together to find ways to improve the accessibility of the take-out site.” We focused our energy in making sure the new access site was constructed and during fall 2006 Lewis County PUD and Port Blakely worked together to construct the new access site. Discussions have continued with all stakeholders to explore creative opportunities to provide access to all river runners including rafters who can not reasonably hike out 1200' with their rafts and associated gear. In recent years, Lewis County PUD has staffed the gate, allowing public access, on up to three set weekend days in the spring.
The lesson for future projects is to make sure the project boundary includes all lands necessary to fully implement the purposes of the project including recreation. While the utility is under the jurisdiction of FERC, private landowners are not. In this case we were lucky to have a company like Port Blakely that had an interest in working to meet local community needs and interests but that is not always the case.