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Judge says Corps permit for Falls project is proper in Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance lawsuit

As a federal judge handed down his decision backing up the permitting process for channel changes at Snoqualmie Falls, Geary Eppley was leading his horses out of harm’s way in the latest local flood.

Eppley, president of the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance, knew a decision was coming soon in his case, SVPA vs. Army Corps of Engineers. But there may have been some irony in the fact that Eppley was bracing for a flood when Judge John Coughenour ruled Wednesday, March 31, against the Alliance’s argument, filed in part as a reaction to Lower Valley flooding.

The Preservation Alliance had argued that the Corps avoided a permitting process that would have required more public input and study of downstream effects.

But Coughenour ruled that the Corps followed appropriate permit procedure, allowing Puget Sound Energy to proceed with its three-year, multi-million-dollar update at the Falls. That project will lower major flood levels upstream and, the company says, have a minimal increase downstream.

“The Alliance is undoubtedly concerned about the possibility of downstream flooding resulting from PSE’s project. But the possibility of downstream flooding is not, by the Alliance’s admission, the issue before this Court,” Coughenour wrote in his decision. “The issue before this Court is whether the Alliance has met its burden of proving that the Corps’ decision to verify PSE’s discharge... was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to law.  Because the Court concludes that the Corps’ validation of PSE’s hydropower project under (its) general permits was suitable, the Alliance has not shown that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act or the Administrative Procedure Act.”

Eppley called the ruling “very disappointing.” However, the group feels bolstered by part of the outcome.

“The court rejected the Corps and PSE’s requests to confirm that downstream flooding impacts were properly studied,” he stated.

In his decision, Coughenour stated that downstream impact studies were peripheral to the main argument on permitting.

The Preservation Alliance is now considering its appeal options.

With three floods in the Lower Valley this season, many supporters of the group have experienced hardship.

“It’s been a tiring year, all around,” Eppley said. Some farmers have had severe delays in their crops, and a lot of plowed farm ground has been damaged, he said.

The group is still raising money to cover its legal expenses thus far, and plans a June fundraiser.

The Alliance sees its efforts, which include calling for a full watershed study, as the Lower Valley’s only line of defense.

“The Corps is not looking out for us,” Eppley said. “We are. That’s it.”

Project continues

The decision doesn’t change the situation at the Falls, where construction never stopped despite the suit’s filing last summer.

“We’re pleased that the court has upheld the Corps permit,” PSE Spokesman Roger Thompson said. “It removes a potential hurdle. Right now, we’re proceeding with construction and look forward to continued generation of hydropower.”

Work at the Falls will continue for another two years. The weir at the falls was almost completely removed last year. That century-old structure will eventually be replaced with a concrete dam that is two feet lower. The river channel is also being widened by about 40 feet.

In PSE’s view, the contruction project shouldn’t have noticeably affected flood flows.

A consultant’s analysis suggested that the weir’s removal would have been counterbalanced by the narrowing of the channel by coffer dams used in construction, Thompson said.

“They kind of cancel each other out,” he added.

Thompson said a watershed study of the kind that the Snoqualmie Valley Preservation Alliance seeks is a "bigger issue" that goes beyond the Falls and would rest with the county.

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