Avista Fund: Being a Good Neighbor

The bluesy tune of a saxophone is heard through the trees by more than 1,000 attendees at a blues festival at Pilgrim Creek Park in Noxon, Mont. The splishing and splashing of children taking after-school swimming lessons is seen at a public swimming pool in Thompson Falls, Mont. An angler in a wheelchair uses a recreation site made accessible in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to cast his fishing line across the Clark Fork River.

What do these three scenes have in common? All are courtesy of Avista Utilities’ Clark Fork Hydroelectric Project.

For more than half a century, Avista in Spokane, Wash., has generated the majority of the hydroelectric power it produces from the Clark Fork Project, which includes the 254.6-MW Cabinet Gorge and 562.4-MW Noxon Rapids developments in northern Idaho and northwest Montana on the lower reach of the Clark Fork River. Avista serves 361,000 electric customers and 320,000 natural gas customers in a service territory that covers eastern Washington, northern Idaho and parts of southern and eastern Oregon.

Accessible Recreation Rendezvous in Noxon, Mont.
Avista has hosted an “Accessible Recreation Rendezvous” in Noxon, Mont. At the event, people tried out adaptive recreation equipment, such as binoculars that stabilize the field of view and fishing poles that an angler can cast with little or no use of the hands.

Aside from the clean, reliable and cost-effective hydropower the Clark Fork Project generates, it has also generated economic, community, environmental and recreational benefits for its surrounding communities since its inception in 1952.

History of partnership and being a good neighbor

The completion of Cabinet Gorge Dam in 1952 and Noxon Rapids Dam in 1959 provided an immediate economic boom to Sanders County, Mont., and the surrounding area. The county’s population nearly doubled with construction workers, and Avista (then known as The Washington Water Power Company) invested nearly half a million dollars to provide new school facilities, teachers’ residences and school buses to meet the needs of the rapidly growing population.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, people who helped build Noxon Rapids planted roots here, and many of our employees and their families who live and work in the Clark Fork Valley have been here for generations. Today, they serve on volunteer boards, as firefighters, community leaders, teachers, and more – they are good neighbors, as well,” says Alan Lackner, Avista’s Clark Fork manager.

The company celebrated the 50-year anniversary of Noxon Rapids in 2009, and in 2012, Cabinet Gorge celebrated 60 years of hydroelectric generation. In more than 50 years of partnership between the utility and the communities surrounding the Clark Fork project, the facility has been embraced for its positive impact on the community and environment.

The Clark Fork Project’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) operating license, issued in 1999, came after several years of collaboration among Avista; local, state and federal agencies; non-governmental organizations and Native American tribes. Their efforts resulted in the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, signed by 28 parties, many of whom are now members of the Clark Fork Management Committee. FERC issued a new license a year before the existing license expired in 1999. It was heralded by FERC staff and numerous stakeholders in 2000 as a national model for a collaborative relicensing process.

A “living license,” the agreement contains 26 protection, mitigation and enhancement measures, which aim to manage and protect the natural resources affected by the two dams. The architects of the agreement pioneered the concept of letting changing conditions and lessons learned drive implementation activities, rather than simply laying out a list of activities to be performed over the lifetime of the license. The Clark Fork Management Committee meets twice annually to approve and monitor implementation efforts.

Recreation opportunities along the Clark Fork

In cooperation with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Idaho Parks and Recreation; and Sanders County, Avista has developed and enhanced many recreational sites since the mid-1950s along the river. As part of the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, a plan to enhance existing sites and create additional sites was developed. Recreation sites include amenities such as boat ramps, campsites, restrooms, fishing piers, hiking trails and two baseball fields.

Sites like Avista’s Pilgrim Creek Park in Noxon have been host to various community events – such as music festivals, softball tournaments and an interstate bike ride stop. Because of the partnerships formed through the Clark Fork Management Committee, many of the Avista-improved sites are co-managed with various state and federal agencies and are free for use by the public.

In a joint effort to help restore the traditional kokanee fishery in Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille, Avista, Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho Department of Fish and Game constructed the Cabinet Gorge Fish Hatchery in 1985. Operated by Idaho Fish and Game, the hatchery is located about 1 mile downstream of Cabinet Gorge Dam and is open for public tours.

In the mid-1980s, in an agreement with Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP), Avista modified Noxon Reservoir operations to enhance recreational fisheries and assisted in planting small mouth bass. These reservoir level operations were codified in the new license, and funding was made available to monitor and enhance the bass fishery and associated habitat. As a result, Noxon Reservoir is known as one of the top bass fisheries in the state, with a growing number of tournaments held there each year. A Montana resident who has visited Noxon Reservoir for more than 20 years describes the area as “one of the best-kept secrets in the state.”

Avista hosts a charity golf tournament
Avista hosts a charity golf tournament each year in Thompson Falls, Mont. This year’s beneficiary was the Sanders County Coalition for Familiies. In 2013 the tournament raised more than $15,000 for the coalition, which helped organize, promote and host the event.

Making the Clark Fork River accessible for all

Advancing recreation opportunities in the lower Clark Fork Valley for people with disabilities is another benefit of the project and its agreement contained within the original license. Avista has ongoing projects to improve access to recreation sites along the Clark Fork and works with local and regional advocacy organizations such as Sanders County United for Disabilities and the Summit Independent Living Center to provide information about these and other resources to disabled county residents and their families.

In partnership with several community organizations, Avista biennially hosts an “Accessible Recreation Rendezvous” in Noxon. The day-long event provides opportunities to try out adaptive recreation equipment, such as binoculars that stabilize the field of view and fishing poles that can be cast with little or no use of the hands. Attendees also learn about design changes to improve universal access and organizations that provide rentals and free use of specialized equipment.

The Avista Fund

To continue Avista’s legacy of community partnership in and around its Clark Fork River dams, Avista Corp. invested $100,000 in 2009 in the Montana Community Foundation to establish the Avista Fund. The fund was created to produce income for grants to dispense as needed to meet local needs. The goal of the fund is to provide grants to non-profit organizations to support programs that strengthen communities and enhance the quality of life for the people of Sanders County and the surrounding areas.

Since its inception, the Avista Fund has granted more than $15,000 to help organizations in the communities surrounding the Clark Fork project. For example, the Noxon School District established a summer program so that disadvantaged children can learn how to swim and be safe when playing along the banks of the Clark Fork River. Other organizations funded include Sanders County Public Health, which provides weekend meals to 140 chronically hungry children throughout six area school districts. Many of the programs and organizations helped through the fund rely heavily on the efforts of volunteers and the financial support of donations. Grant applications are reviewed and awarded annually by a panel of Avista employees who work closely with the communities surrounding the Clark Fork Project.

The current focus of the Avista fund is on opportunities for youth to improve their lives and communities by breaking down barriers to participation in recreation and other activities, creating safe and inviting environments for these activities and improving access to information and technology.

Avista Fund grants have helped fund sports teams, provide safety equipment for youth, offer gun safety classes, provide free preschool classes in Trout Creek, Mont., support a Lego robotics team through Sanders County 4-H, offer life skills classes for teen mothers, and more.

Also in 2009, Avista established an annual charity golf tournament in Thompson Falls to benefit a different local organization each year. The tournament’s first beneficiary was the Sanders County Community Housing Authority, a non-profit agency that promotes affordable housing to residents of Sanders County and offers weatherization and home repair programs for low-income, elderly and disabled homeowners. The tournament raised more than $6,000, which the organization was able to leverage toward a $600,000 grant from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and $400,000 of federal stimulus funds. The funding was used to purchase and refurbish five duplexes that are used as low-income housing complexes and provide a source of continual revenue for the group.

Since its first year, the golf tournament has raised more than $50,000 for beneficiaries such as the Sanders County Coalition for Families, Cancer Network of Sanders County, Senior Citizen Centers of Sanders County and Sanders County 4-H. The program is so successful that each year the amount raised has topped the year before. Benefiting organizations are critical to and have an interest in making the tournament successful and actively helping to secure donations.

The benefits of the Clark Fork hydroelectric project are numerous and varied, not just to Avista’s customers, but to the communities around our Clark Fork River dams.

– By Sarah Richards, former communications specialist, Avista Utilities

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