A River for Fish, Kayaks, Swimmers
Health of Spokane’s Treasure is Indicator of Communities’ Values
Those Falls Once Hosted Salmon as Big As Wolves
Spokane is a city with a river running through it, one where fly fishing and rafting and boating bring people out on the water. The river is an economic engine, both for the industries that draw from it and discharge in it and for those closely tied to tourism through ecological stewardship. Our city is one of dozens that has its very own Riverkeeper.
Moreover, our city is known for its falls, known for the Riverfront Park amenities, known for 14,000 acres of recreational pleasure in Riverside State Park. Even the staid County web page speaks to our running water’s value to the citizens: “The primary body of water running through the most populous area of the county, the Spokane River has two tributaries—Latah (Hangman) Creek and Little Spokane. There is no debate as to the value and importance of the river to area, and even regional, residents.”
There has been for decades a battle around how much water is released during summer through the dams on the Spokane River: the irrigators/farmers and industries want water diverted for their needs and the ecologists/environmentalists want more total instream flow (measured by cubic feet per second) for the fish and entire river ecosystem.
Then there are debates on what the riparian-riverbank ecology should look like: developers and irrigation users want development close to the river and the environmentalists see a 250 foot buffer back from the river more conducive for healthy plant and animal life.
Finally, the last big war is tied to how much sewage overflow is allowed in the river and the amounts and types of pollutants allowed for discharge into the river.
The Center for Environmental Law and Policy (CELP), American Whitewater, and Sierra Club are petitioning Washington Department of Ecology (“Ecology”) to regulate more intensively the Instream Flow Rule for the river.
What’s at stake is the redband trout, steelhead, and other fish that were for centuries the life source for the Spokane Tribe and other Inland Salish clans.
Spokane Tribe and Poetry of Ecology
The Spokane Tribe of Indians laments what was lost through colonialism, but are keenly aware of protecting the river under today’s standards. Here is a poetic historical view by the Tribe: “In the early existence of the Spokane Tribe, over three million acres of land were lived upon, protected and respected by the Spokane Indians. The Spokane Indians fished the Spokane River and used the grand Spokane Falls as a gathering place of family and friends. The Spokanes lived along the river in three bands known as the Upper, Middle and Lower Spokane Indians. Depending upon the season of the year, traditional camp sites were lived in.”
The city is also tied to the Spokane Tribe’s history as first Nations and the spiritual significance of the free flowing falls and traditional life-saving salmon fishing. The city worked with poet and novelist Sherman Alexie, raised on the Spokane Reservation and in Spokane, to put in steel shaped as salmon honoring Alexie’s epic poem about the Falls and his ancestors fishing chum and Chinook near the Monroe Street Bridge.
The Spokane poet and novelist measures the power of a free flowing river from his ancestors’ view point, while others, like prominent environmental writer, Wendell Berry, cover the glory of free-flowing rivers in general: “Men may dam it and say that they have made a lake, but it will still be a river. It will keep its nature and bide its time, like a caged animal alert for the slightest opening. In time, it will have its way; the dam, like the ancient cliffs, will be carried away piecemeal in the currents.”
A City Made By a River
On any given spring day the river can look robust, healthy, vigorous, but the downside is that since the late 1890s, the total cubic feet per second flow has been dramatically reduced by the needs of development, farming, industry, and due to climate change. You might be standing in the river in Peaceful Valley or east near Barker Road, and that’s part of the excitement of having a river running through it (an entire two-state hodgepodge of geological forms, ecosystems, towns, cities, lakes).
A city’s past, present and future are embedded in stewardship, and lack thereof: Imagine this flow from the megafloods 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, and we can envision a life-source and historical repository for the Spokane River, located in northern Idaho and eastern Washington with a drainage area of 17,200 square kilometers. It rises from Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and flows west through the Spokane Valley until reaching Spokane.
Moose, white-tailed deer, beaver, hundreds of aquatic flora and fauna species, dozens of bird species, and a million dreams are contained in the ever-changing dynamic reflection in this flow.
Many developers, business leaders and planning practitioners cite our early city architects and planners as the foundation to how the city has valued a healthy downtown and healthy forest and river. The Olmsteads (John Charles and Frederick Law) had a big hand in designing Manito Park and more than a century ago (in 1913) their words are just as relevant today: “Nothing is so firmly impressed on the mind of the visitor to Spokane, as regards its appearance, as the great gorge into which the river falls near the center of the city. It is a tremendous feature of the landscape and one which is rarer in a large city than river, lake, bay or mountain. Any city should prize and preserve its great landscape features, inasmuch as they give it individuality.”
Life sustenance Above and below ground—An interplay
There is an interplay with the Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer and the river because many sections of the Spokane River get a significant amount of water from the SVRP aquifer, almost 60 percent of the aquifer’s outflow. And yet the water seepage of the river accounts for 43 percent of the SVRP aquifer’s recharge. All aquifer water, unless pumped by wells, ends up as surface flow in the Spokane River.
Water resource management for the region is closely tied to understanding the hydraulic relationship between the Spokane Valley Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer (SVRPA) and the Spokane River. More than 38 years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the SVRPA as a “sole source aquifer.” Vulnerability to contamination is due to soils above—no continuous clay or silt layers exist. If the river is polluted with compounds making up fertilizers, overflow sewage, lead and other heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—a group of manufactured organic chemicals that contain 209 individual chlorinated chemicals (known as congeners)—then it eventually will flow into the aquifer.
Used in electrical transformers as an oil, and also used in Kaiser Aluminum’s lubricating process of rolling out the metal, PCBs are known cancer-causing chemicals, endocrine disruptors, and DNA scramblers.
How the river stays clean and how much of the city and county stay forested and how those creeks stay free-flowing many times comes down to lawsuits taken up by environmental groups against the state agencies in charge of protecting the commons. Putting one human face and voice into the mix, a Riverkeeper, means all those reports and legal cases get filtered through a lay person’s comprehension. Sometimes people need education on why golf courses and developments sitting on the banks of the river, or creek, and cattle grazing up to the edge of both Latah Creek and Spokane River are not good for a river-riparian system.
Since 1890 the city has been monitoring and recording stream flow. The average seven-day low flows have dropped from 1,800 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 1,141 cfs from 1890 to 2015. Ecology has found that “since the mid-1980s, summer low flows in the river drop below the minimum flow established in the new rule about every other year, on average.”
Swim in it, Fish it, Drink from it
“If you ask me what the most pressing issue is, I’d say Hangman Creek (Latah). A lot is happening to clean it up. It’s been a multigenerational effort,” says Jerry White, Jr., a native of the Willamette Valley but now a long-time Spokane resident, and our region’s Riverkeeper since 2014.
He understands how things worked in the past—it was the old way of the developers, industrialists and farmers to get right to the water’s edge. “All about maximizing yield. And that was incentivized by farm programs. As the public, we are now entitled to clean water.”
This is a modern tale of false choices, White says—it’s either all agriculture’s needs or all environmental values. “People are being shorted, and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
He believes in the concept of normalizing the values of clean stream-beds, healthy fish runs, safe swimming along all parts of the creek, and clean drinking water. Getting there involves a lot of education. Hangman Creek has been one of the most neglected waterways in the state—running 65 miles from Idaho and flowing north into the Spokane River. The Little Spokane is the second largest moving body of water entering the Spokane River. That river is also threatened.
Phosphorous, which comes from agriculture, golf courses, and private lawn fertilizing, ends up in Hangman Creek, and this large nutrient load—along with the sediments washing into the creek—puts everything out of whack: algae takes over, temperatures rise and then it all finds its way into the Spokane River, even accounting for algae blooms in Long Lake.
“I can put it this way—Hangman Creek no longer delivers ecological services: salmon and trout can’t thrive and the creek can’t be swum in,” says White.
White, who gets out on the Spokane River as much as he can—either floating it in a boat, or walking the river’s edge and cutbanks—acknowledges how aggressively the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is restoring the headwaters of Latah (Hangman) Creek, and that the redband trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdnerii) are returning.
The irony is that the public spends $500,000 a year on a clean up plan for the Spokane River, yet the problem largely originates in Hangman Creek.
“We’d like to see redband trout returned to all the areas, not just parts of the creek,” White says. There is work to be done to get cattle out of the river, and to restore all the native bank- and soil-holding willows and other fauna. Moose and beaver, muskrat and deer, and all the other species in and out of the water will return.
The Price of Consumerism—
The largest dischargers are Spokane County, City of Spokane, Kaiser, and Inland Empire Paper. Those persistent organic chemicals in PCBs bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in the top of the food web predators like osprey. White wants the work being done with the dischargers and Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force to move forward so an end of the pipe numerical limit is placed on the dischargers.
He was raised in Cheney and he still remembers his grandfather teaching him to fish and to love salmon in Oregon. White recalls being in fifth grade and attending Spokane’s Expo ’74. “I have these memories of the river being dirtier than it is now. So, we have come a long way in some sense,” he says.
More forward motion is needed, however, to get developers, permit regulators, and the public at large to have incentives to restore riparian (river edges, and surrounding lands) areas.
White says that for centuries the Spokane Tribe had free flowing rapids, undeveloped river banks, zero industrial or other human discharges into the river. White cites Colonel William Abercrombie’s dairy that it took longer to catch a grasshopper to bait a hook than to catch a fish.
Educate, Demonstrate, Activate
The Riverkeeper mentions environmental awareness and participation in stewardship through the lens of K12 education, and college and trade schools. White is for curricular shifts: “In the case of K-12, get the kids out of Texas-based textbooks and get them onto our river banks to study the ecosystems, issues and solutions in the places they live, in our case, the Spokane River Watershed.”
He agrees there are many countervailing forces of the economy over the environment: “Many of those in control have defined fixing and restoring in terms of what works inside the frame of an economic reality, that answers to rate payers, shareholders, et al. So rather than going all the way with riparian restoration and enforcing laws that are already on the books, we compromise with voluntary programs that simply don’t have the teeth to get us to real recovery.”
The Clean Water Act is still a powerful tool questioned by industry. Just recently the EPA changed Washington Water Quality Standards on PCBs to 7 picograms per liter (pg/L) from the previous Washington standard of 170 pg/L. “This is almost no PCBs in the water column. However, you will see industry fight this new law tooth and nail as they are quite content to call 170 pg/L ‘fixed and restored.’ Protecting empowered, financial frameworks for short term gain still holds a lot of sway, even in an identified ‘river city’ like Spokane,” says White.
Loopholes allow developers to skirt even new regulatory measures like the Growth Management and Shoreline acts. Money talks. Exploiting the laws’ loopholes allows for developers to do the wrong thing for this generation and generations yet to be born.
According to White, the contradictions are huge: “These loopholes, of course, allow developments to destroy priceless ecological treasures like shoreline critical zones along our river. In the early 2000s we let a large housing development build within 150 feet of our river on pristine, ecologically critical areas rather than hold them to the newly minted shoreline set backs of 250 feet.”
White mentions how the Olmsteads more than a century ago identified Hangman Creek/Spokane River as a scenic gorge “to be valued for its beauty.” The State department of fish and wildlife recently identified this area special for herons, mule deer, otters—a critical wildlife corridor.
Values in the culture at large have shifted, White says. Sensory overload with video games, TV, screen and Facebook time: youth do not know what is worth fighting for if they do not get out into nature, along rivers and creeks. White knows stewardship begins with outreach and education, both in the classroom and experiential.
The City of Spokane is working to ensure a cleaner Spokane River with a two-year project to build a two-million gallon tank west of City Hall. The $32 million project is a diversion tank to be buried underground to hold most of the stormwater runoff from downtown.
The federal government set the pollution standards, but one of the added features of the project is a new wide promenade that will provide overlooks and shaded seating. Talk of food trucks and other vendors are integrated into the project, as will be a trailhead connector from City Hall, along the river, and then looping into Peaceful Valley, crossing the river at the Sandifur Bridge and hitting the Centennial Trail in Kendall Yards.
Hope is a Water Protector
The problems of pollution and nutrient and soil overload along Latah Creek need the Riverkeeper and others pushing for strong laws and quick action. While it all seems daunting, Jerry White, Jr., has a lot of hope.
The Riverkeeper harkens back to youth and being on the river as two values for inciting change: “In the end, two things give me hope—kids and the flowing of the river I love. When I feel sort beat down, I try and make sure that I schedule a youth outreach event. Kids seem to get the value of nature. They are curious about their world. They naturally want to do the right thing by the little critters around them. A youth knee deep in the river with a turtle in their hand is the symbol of hope.”
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