Nitrates Here and There

Recently, I’ve heard a number of radio stories about nitrate levels in Iowa’s Des Moines River.  I began to wonder how they might compare to nitrate levels in our watershed and I thought I would do some investigating.

Back in Iowa, the city of Des Moines sued a number of counties upstream due to the high levels of fertilizer in the form of nitrate that is contaminating their drinking water supply and forcing costly removal.  My questions are just how high are nitrate levels in the Des Moines River, how do they compare with local levels of nitrate in Hangman Creek, and what are the possible implications for our watershed?

Nitrate is often applied to farmland as fertilizer.  It comes from other sources as well, such as septic systems and wastewater treatment plants, but most nitrate in surface waters comes from unfiltered runoff from fertilized fields.  In some cases, improper management of dairy manure can cause nitrate contamination in ground water.  Drinking water with high levels of nitrate can cause blue baby syndrome and impact human, particularly infant, health.

How high are the levels of nitrates in the Des Moines River?  They are certainly above the EPA drinking water limit of 10 mg/L.  In fact, they reach up to 16 mg/L, exceeding the safe drinking water limit for many months (see figure below).  It is clear that the Des Moines River is very contaminated with nitrates.

Des Moines River Nitrates

Nitrate levels in the Des Moines River, Iowa.

Recently I have been testing Hangman Creek water for nitrate.  The results of this testing reveal that Hangman Creek contains high levels of nitrates as well, at least relative to other Washington creeks and streams, but not as high as levels in the Des Moines River.  The graph below show nitrates in Hangman Creek compared to the Little Spokane River.  Hangman Creek contains 3-4 times more nitrates than the Little Spokane River and some of the highest in the state, according to Ecology data.

Nitrate levels in Hangman Creek are much higher than the Little Spokane River.

Nitrate levels in Hangman Creek are much higher than the Little Spokane River.

Looking at the Hangman watershed, this isn’t very surprising.  The watershed is roughly 50% agricultural and very little is being done to restrict the flow of surface waters and the associated nutrients to Hangman Creek.  In fact, surface waters are often intentionally channeled directly to Hangman Creek (see picture below)!  Sometimes this practice is technically legal, sometimes not, but it always comes at a high cost to water quality and fresh water ecosystems.  Although nitrogen isn’t usually the limiting nutrient in most freshwater ecosystems, it can affect sensitive freshwater ecosystems.

An excavated ditch flowing directly to Hangman Creek.

An excavated ditch flowing directly to Hangman Creek.

The Des Moines River, Iowa, contains very high and unhealthy levels of nitrate.  Hangman Creek does not reach these levels, but it does contain some of the highest nitrate levels in the state.  The intensive farming practices in the area, including ditching surface waters directly to the creek, allow nitrogenous fertilizers to runoff into our rivers and lakes.  This concerns us a great deal.

The Spokane Riverkeeper routinely monitors water quality, including nitrates, in Hangman Creek.  Our preliminary data agree with Ecology data and show that Hangman Creek contains high levels of nitrates as it exits the Palouse.  More on these data later…

Letter to the Governor: A Toxics Shell Game

We have been talking about this for months and can’t stress it enough.  The Proposed Human Health Criteria Water Quality Standards fail to protect the health of consumers of locally caught fish and shellfish.  Washington proposed increasing the estimated amount of fish that we eat dramatically.  Raising that amount requires reducing the amount of toxins in those fish (and thereby the environment).  However, instead of proposing to reduce toxins, the Washington State Department of Ecology proposed increasing the acceptable cancer rate based on those toxins.  So in sum, no changes in water quality or fish toxicity would occur!  This shell game with toxins, fish consumption level, and cancer rate does nothing to protect fish consumers or our environment.  In a letter to Ecology, a number of local businesses and nonprofits, such as your Spokane Riverkeeper argue that the proposed criteria are inadequate.  Check it out here: 2015.3.23 NGO and Business Letter re WQS

In Support of Ecology…

Here at the Spokane Riverkeeper, we work to clean up and bring awareness to nonpoint source pollution.  Nonpoint source pollution, as its name implies, comes from many diffuse sources.  As rain or snowmelt runs over land it picks up pollutants and deposits them in our waters.  Our water quality monitoring program aims to bring attention to and measure theses pollutants in our streams.   On that note, check out how dirty Hangman Creek was this week (3/17/15)! 

However, cleaning up nonpoint source pollution falls to a variety of organizations which employ a variety of methods.  The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is tasked with enforcing the environmental regulations in Washington State.  Recently, we wrote a letter to Ecology, supporting the work they do.  In short we said….

I want you to understand that much of the public that we represent stands with Ecology in their efforts to develop a non-point plan, establish the terms of compliance to this plan and we stand by the regulatory efforts of your ground teams to consistently hold parties accountable in protecting Washington’s public water resources.   

Check out the entire letter: Ecology letter 3-19-15.

Enforcing existing laws provides a strong regulatory backbone which will drive all other pollution control efforts.

Does Low Snow Equal Low Flow in the Spokane River?

I recently floated a rapidly dropping Spokane River, under bright sunny skies and unusually warm weather.  I didn’t catch any fish, but did work on my tan.  Jule floating the river

I wondered if the warm and dry conditions, combined with the lack of snowpack in the mountains and an early spring runoff, would bring about the super low summer flows that would spell disaster for recreationalists and fishermen on the river.  I did a bit of research, and this is what I found….

Below about 1000 cfs (cubic feet/second) the Spokane River becomes unfloatable in anything other than an inner tube. Looking back through the records I found that the summers of 2001, 2003, and 2005 all had flows of less than 600 cfs at some point during the summer, usually in August.  As the graph of spring and summer flows below shows, many of these years had lower than average March snowpacks at Mt. Spokane as well (59, 68, and 24 percent of average, respectively).  In comparison in 2014, Spokane River flows never dipped below 1000 cfs and March snowpack was about 79% of normal.

low flows with 2014

So it seems as if snowpack plays a role in our river levels.  After all, without the snowmelt to feed our rivers, where would the water come from?  But it’s not the entire story.  River level also relates to when the snow melts.  Usually, river levels are high (over ~10,000 cfs) from late April and through May.  But when the snow melts early, river levels can get very low during the summer.  This situation occurred in 1994 when early spring runoff in April led to very low flows during all of August, as shown by the graph below. 1994 flowsThis year’s snowpack is the lowest on record and most of the snow has already melted from the mountains.  So it seems likely that summer flows will be the lowest ever recorded on Spokane River.    Not only could this affect the people that use our river, it could have huge consequences for the native Redband Trout.  Spawning grounds, typically near the banks of the river, would left high and dry during spring low flow.

Washington Deserves Clean Water and Clean Fish!

The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is proposing an increase the estimated amount of fish eaten per person per day to 175 grams.  That’s good news!  Currently, Washington State woefully underestimates fish consumption at 6.5 grams of fish/per day.  fish3_1

Now the bad news.  Along with this rule comes a proposed tenfold increase in the acceptable rate for risk of cancer from one in one million to one in 100,000, as well as providing significantly more time for polluters to meet water quality standards.   This is in part because if you currently eat 175 grams of locally caught fish/day, you exceed greater cancer risk level of one in a million.

Instead of reducing the amount of toxins in our water and fish Ecology has proposed allowing for greater cancer risk. 

fish pipeHigh levels of toxins in fish disproportionally affect children, tribal communities, sport fishers and pregnant women.  These communities eat a higher ratio of local fish or are more vulnerable to risks of eating toxin laden fish.  So tell Ecology that we deserve clean water and clean fish!



Riparian Cover on the Little Spokane River

Streamside, or riparian, vegetation performs vital ecosystem functions for our waters.  To name a few, it keeps the water cool in the summer, filters pollutants, provides habitat, and contributes woody debris.   Portions of the Little Spokane River, like this one behind St. Georges School have great riparian habitat.  Healthy riparian habitat consists of a combination of tall mature trees, willows, and aquatic plants.

Excellent riparian habitat along the Little Spokane River behind St. George's School.

Excellent riparian habitat along the Little Spokane River behind St. George’s School.

However, portions of Deadman Creek, a tributary of the Little Spokane River shown below, need major improvements.

Riparian vegetation is absent along Deadman Creek.

Riparian vegetation is absent along Deadman Creek.

A small riparian buffer, like the one shown below, filters out sediments, nutrients, toxins, and bacteria.

A portion of Deadman Creek with grassy riparian habitat.

A portion of Deadman Creek with grassy riparian buffers.


Our native redband trout and other species that depend on our waters need intact riparian habitat.  For one, redband trout need cool waters of less than 20°C (68°F), which are kept cool from overhanging riparian trees and shrubs.

Water Clarity in Hangman Creek

Jule Schultz, the Spokane Riverkeeper Technical Lead, sampled water near the mouth of both Hangman Creek and California Creek on 2/10/2015 after the heavy rains of the weekend.  California Creek, a small tributary of Hangman Creek, flows from some of the most ecologically intact watershed in the Hangman basin.  Lined with streamside woody vegetation, this stream contains small populations of trout, although it flows through working farmland and forestland in the upper reaches.

The mouth of California Creek.

Hangman Creek from the 11th bridge, flowing at 2,100 cfs on 2/10/15.

Hangman Creek on the other hand has had most of its streamside vegetation ripped out from farming activities.


Comparing the two samples, the results are striking, at least in terms of water clarity (turbidity).  Visibility was 5.9 cm in Hangman Creek and 50.9 cm in California Creek.  Measured scientifically, the results are even greater, with Hangman Creek over 100 times more turbid than California Creek (210 ftu vs 2 ftu).  Trout begin to look for refuge from the dirty water at 30 FTU.  So it seems clear to me why trout would choose to live in California Creek.

California (left) and Hangman (right) Creek water samples.  The difference is clear.

Polluting Waterways Without Penalty. Native Trout Cannot Live in Mud!

streamBy Jule Shultz, Riverkeeper Technical Lead

A few months ago, while scouting locations for water quality sampling sites, we came across this shallow stream that was recently dredged by a landowner. The ditch, excavated for the purpose of draining agricultural land, flows directly into Hangman Creek bringing with it:
• High water flows unfiltered by streamside vegetation
• Tons of sediment
• Fertilizer
• Fecal Coliform (from feces and manure)
• And other nasties!

Hangman Creek has been documented as one of the most polluted waterways in Washington State

(WRIA, 2005; Stream Report, 2005).

But why should you care about the health

of Hangman Creek?

  1. Do you like swimming or recreating in the Creek or Spokane River? High levels of fecal coliform in Hangman Creek pose a health hazard to those who come into contact with it. Improving waste water treatment plants and implementing proper animal management practices are key to cleaning the creek.
  2. Do you enjoy fly fishing for native trout? High temperatures in Hangman Creek kill native redband trout and impede their reintroduction. Soil erosion destroys spawning beds and kills the insects that trout need to eat. Streamside shorelines vegetated with trees and shrubs that create a canopy lower water temperatures and provide habitat for insects that trout need to survive.
  3. Do you love the rolling farmland of the Palouse? Poor farmland management washes tons of that dirt, and the associated nutrients, into Hangman Creek every year. This sediment and nutrients fuel toxic algae blooms in Long Lake, creating health warnings and unsightly algal mats. “Direct seed” methods of agriculture could reduce agricultural runoff dramatically.

We sent this photo and others to local regulatory agencies, thinking that surely this must be illegal.
Although I’m not a lawyer, I felt there must be some law broken when a stream can just be dredged and straightened. As it turns out, these actions are perfectly legal based on a number of agricultural exemptions to the Clean Water Act


As someone who cares about the health of the Spokane River, and who diligently monitors pollution on this stream, this allowable exemption which results in severe pollution in our watersheds is beyond frustrating. Given the lack of regulation on agricultural lands how does one clean up these sources of pollution? Some programs are being implemented, for instance in the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. However, in many cases these programs rely heavily on incentives, such as through grants and loans for proper pasture management. Relying solely on incentives, without a regulatory backstop, allows bad actors to continue polluting without any penalty.

Locally a number of organizations are working towards cleaning up Hangman Creek. Riparian plantings, land and easement purchases, and implementation of conservation practices all work towards the goal of clean water in Hangman Creek. However, I think the problem is so big in this watershed none of these practices alone will solve it.

So what is the solution? The answer to that will be complex. It will involve providing incentives to implement best management practices, regulation of existing water quality law and education about the value of intact riparian buffers. The Spokane Riverkeeper will be working in the Hangman watershed for years to come. We will be exploring pollution solutions through monitoring water quality, pressing for the enforcement of existing regulations, educating the public and advocating for a swimmable and fishable river.

Despite the legality of the pollution shown above, there are many ways to make a difference on Hangman Creek. Reporting pollution as it is happening, volunteering with one of the many organizations, such as the Spokane Riverkeeper, and supporting your local environmental group all go a long way towards restoring Hangman Creek.

Developing Future Riverkeepers

Jerry White helps elementary student cast a fly rod

By Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White

After-school fly fishing & river education camps have finished up at the West Valley Outdoor Learning Center.  These camps happened because of a successful partnership between Hutton Settlement, Inland Northwest Nature Connection, Spokane Riverkeeper , Spokane Valleyfest and Spokane Valley Parks and Recreation.  Additionally, the Spokane River Forum helped us organize the service portion of the project.  Over the course of a week, the students from Hutton settlement learned a bit about river ecology, macro-invertebrates, native trout and invasive species.  They learned how to tie flies, they participated in the Upriver Scrub picking up garbage along the river, and finally caught some fine hatchery trout from the Mirabeau Parkway pond.  These rainbow trout were left in the pond after the kids fishing day during Valleyfest.  The camp kids helped ensure that these trout would not die during the winter, but be caught, cleaned and eaten for dinner by the kids of Hutton.  Thanks to all for a great experience!

Help us continue our work in the community! Please consider purchasing a Spokane Riverkeeper T-shirt for $25. High quality, Alternative Apparel brand, available in 3 colors- Adult sizes only. For each purchase made, Ammonite Ink will donate $11.20 to Spokane Riverkeeper! 

Quick update on Midnite Mine

Spokane Tribe calls for more time to review Midnite Mine clean-up plan and rally local residents and area citizens to do the same.

Deb Abrahamson, SHAWL Director and myself at one of the pits at Midnite Mine in 2010

Deb Abrahamson, SHAWL Director and myself at one of the pits at Midnite Mine in 2010

For those that aren’t aware or need a refresher, Midnite Mine is an inactive uranium mine on the Spokane Tribe reservation near Wellpinit in Stevens County.  Oh and it sits dangerously close to the Spokane River.   It was listed as a Superfund site on May 11, 2000 due to high levels of radioactivity and heavy metals in acidic drainage that are a threat to human health and the environment.

You may recall back in 2010 I visited the site as one of the first things I did as Spokane Riverkeeper. – http://www.cforjustice.org/2010/08/31/field-trip-to-the-midnite-mine/

At any rate, two weeks ago, members of the Tribe and others from the greater inland Northwest community gathered at the site to call for a thorough cleanup and healing process for all those effected by this mine.

There were two great reports on this.

First, The Spokesman-Review, then a report by Steve Jackson at KPBX.