riverkeeper

Temperatures in the Spokane River

Yesterday, July 1st, I took some temperatures in the Spokane River and Hangman Creek.  As you can see in the table below, water temperatures in parts of the Spokane River and Hangman Creek are very hot.  In fact, the Spokane River at Barker Road measured 28.3 C (83 F)!  Hangman Creek measured 26.3 C (79 F).

Location
date
time
air temp (C)
water temp (C)
Water Street
7/1/2015
1500
22.2
16.7
TJ Menach
7/1/2015
1430
27.2
17.7
Hangman at 11th Street Bridge
7/1/2015
1445
21.7
26.3
Barker Road
7/1/2015
1530
24
28.3
Plantes Ferry
7/1/2015
1550
17.3

Today, it was reported that Columbia River temperatures at Bonneville dam are the hottest since 1950.  Air temperatures in this area usually peak at the end of June and the beginning of August.  So the area will endure at least another month of warming waters.  And although people have ways of keeping cool, our aquatic life are stuck with these temperatures.  Trout are stressed at 70 F and begin to die at 80 F, temperatures we are already measuring in part of the river.

As you can see, parts of the river are still very cold.  Downriver from Spokane, water temperatures measure between 16 and 18 C (61 and 64 F).  This is due to the influence of our amazing aquifer, which flows into the Spokane River here.  In the map below, the blue area shows where the aquifer flows into our river, cooling it and also providing a bit of extra flow.  gaining and losing reaches

 

With these temperatures anglers should consider “hoot owl fishing” (early morning) to reduce stress on the native trout they catch and release.

 

How low can it go? A historic year on the Spokane River

This week Dan Partridge of the State Department of Ecology announced that the snowpack in Washington State is at zero percent of normal.  Snowpack feeds our surface waters, slowly melting and flowing into our rivers and reservoirs.  With no snow in the mountains, the flows in our rivers are severely reduced.  The Spokane River is no exception and as a result, flows are at record lows.  The graph below of flows of the Spokane River at Spokane shows past and current flow as a blue line and historical minimum flow as a blue triangle.  For example, on 6/17/15 the Spokane River flowed at just over 1,100 cubic feet per second (cfs).  The historical minimum for June 17th is just under 2,000 cfs.

In other words, we set a new minimum flow today, at almost half of our historical minimum.  spokane river flow and 10 day prediction 6-17-15

These historic lows are about 1/10 of average.  The historical mean on this day is just over 10,000 cfs.  Clearly the lack of snow in the mountains has a dramatic effect on our Spokane River flows.

Other factors influence the flow of the Spokane River other than snow.  The Spokane River flows from Lake Coeur d’Alene, through the Post Falls dam, and interchanges with the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer along the way.  Currently, Avista is releasing 619 cfs out of Lake Coeur d’Alene.  Their FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to release 600 cfs from the Post Falls dam. At Spokane, the gauge reads 1120 today.  So the extra 501 cfs (1120-619), comes from our aquifer.

What does this mean for river users?  The whitewater rafting season was cut dramatically short.  Fisheries closures on the Spokane River are a possibility in the Upper River, due to the high temperatures created by the low flows.  Of course, on a positive note, low water levels reveal more garbage for our river litter clean up program to clean up!

Low flows revealed a bike under the Sandifur Bridge.

Low flows revealed a bike under the Sandifur Bridge.

The Brown Waters of Hangman

The Spokane Riverkeeper received a flood of notifications last week recently regarding brown, dirty water in Hangman Creek.  Hangman Creek frequently contains turbid, sediment laden water during heavy rains or rain on snow events that cause the creek levels to rise astronomically (in some cases over 1000 cfs in 30 minutes).  What was unique about this pollution event was the lack of a dramatic rise in creek levels (see gage below).  Although the creek bumped up about 90 cfs, this is a tiny blip compared to the increases of 3,000 to 7,000 cfs Hangman frequently experiences.  So what explains the dirty water in the creek?

A very muddy Hangman Creek on 5-20-15.

A very muddy Hangman Creek on 5-20-15.

At the confluence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River.  Hangman Creek is polluting the Spokane River.

At the confluence of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River. Hangman Creek is clearly polluting the Spokane River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

hangman 5-17-15.gif

Hangman Creek rose about 70 cfs on 5-18-15. This rise is relatively small considering during spring runoff the creek can rise over 3000 cfs in a matter of hours.

Poor farming practices, coupled with thunderstorms on 5/17/15, caused sediment laden dirt to flow from fallowed farmland directly into Hangman Creek and its tributaries.

A quick drive around the Hangman Creek watershed showed just how farming practices cause sediment to flow into our surface waters.  Clear signs of erosion on fallow farmland, such as erosional rills, deeply incised channels, and evidence of dirt on the road were abundant throughout the Mica Creek drainage (see photos below).  Fields farmed in this manner can lose up to 12-20 tons of soil an acre/year!  (To put that in perspective a large dumptruck load of soil weighs about 8 tons).  This erosion is preventable!  Planting a cover crop could reduce the massive amounts of erosion occurring in this area of the Palouse.  Erosion causes soil to be lost forever from this highly productive farmland while choking our surface waters.

The quick flow of surface water cause deeply incised channels.

The quick flow of surface water causes deeply incised channels.

Erosional rills carry tons of sediment to our creeks.

Erosional rills carry tons of sediment to our creeks.

sediment from erosion on road

Sediment eroded from this field and spilled onto the road.

Streamside vegetation effectively filters sediment from polluted farmland runoff.  Unfortunately, riparian vegetation is sparse in the Hangman watershed, particularly on the intermittent streams that feed Hangman Creek.  Without riparian buffers along all “waters of the state”, our surface waters will continue to be polluted.

Of course it takes rainfall to cause runoff and locally heavy precipitation delivered ample rainfall to wash sediment into Hangman Creek.  Rain data from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow (CoCoRaHS) gages on 5/17/15 showed moderate rainfall accumulations of up to about 0.5” in Spokane and Whitman Counties.  That probably isn’t enough to explain the dirt in Hangman Creek, even accounting for the terrible farming practices in the watershed.  However, a comment from the CoCoRaHS station in Thornton, WA says:

“The big storm just skirted us last night. Unconfirmed reports of over 3.5″ of rain east of Oakesdale, Wa, causing major damage”

If this storm hit unplanted fields that lack any riparian buffers, it would have caused the pollution we saw in Hangman Creek last week.

So what is the solution?  In Washington State it is illegal to pollute our surface waters.  If you see signs of erosion, such as erosional rills or sediment being carried to our surface waters, please report it to Ecology.  In Spokane call (509) 329-3400 to report a potential pollution violation.  Ecology is required to verify and act on these reports, so any reports you make go a long way to correcting pollution in Washington State.

 

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 be 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.

stream

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.