Tis the season for high flows, floods and stresses on our water resources. Here’s some info you need to know about, and some resources for minimizing your risk to human health issues associated with the aforementioned conditions.
Have you been outside lately; pretty nice, isn’t it? But what happened to ALL that snow we got in late February / early March though; and what about that rain we got? As you can imagine, or as you’ve seen if you’ve been down to the Spokane River, Hangman Creek, Little Spokane River other area streams, all that snow that ran off and continues to run off and all that rain we got has made for some pretty high flows and flooding events.
As of posting, the Spokane River is flowing at just over 26,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), which is a record high for this date in history, where according to the USGS, mean discharge for March 13th, over the last 123 years is 7,640 CFS, and the max for this date in history is, or should I say was, 22,900 CFS, which occurred in 1985.
No surprise really as the last few weeks we saw a cold snap and heavy snow accumulation followed up immediately by warm temps, rapid snow melt and rain. Just look at the chart (to your left) of Spokane River flows over the last week; that’s a steep climb. When it’s all said and done, March will likely average out and fall somewhere in that 7,000 to 10,000 CFS mean discharge range for the month, which will put it right in the sweet spot for March which has a mean discharge flow over the last 123 years of 8,280 CFS.
If you want to geek out on Spokane River flows (or Hangman, Little Spokane or any other stream), bookmark the USGS sites for each stream:
Little Spokane River.
AND be sure to download the River Watcher app for your phone so you can check out USGS flow data on the go.
But right now, this very second, flows are high and people are noticing. The City of Spokane has been posting photos the last
few days of the Spokane River covering the Centennial Trial. As seen in their pic to the right. So take notice of this. If you’re out and about, especially along the River, you will likely encounter high flows and in some places, barriers to trails or other access points you may be use to. For one, be careful. The water is cold and it’s swift. For two, if you are out and about, take some photos and send them our way so we can feature them on the Riverkeeper website and social media channels. And finally, as a pro tip, NOW is the time to get down to Riverfront Park for those once-a-year experiences of the roar of the Spokane Falls and the up-close experience of the raw power of water (and the spray of the falls).
Environmental and human health risks associated with high water.
Beyond the flow rate numbers (which I could play with for hours) and the awe-inspiring images of the Spokane River and Spokane River falls at near-peak flow, here’s what really has people talking. The following brief update appeared in The Spokesman-Review on March 8th:
The city of Tensed, Idaho, will start pumping untreated wastewater into Hangman Creek to prevent the city’s wastewater lagoons from overflowing, state officials said Friday.
People should avoid contact with Hangman Creek until further notice, according to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
Recent flooding put the lagoons at risk of failure without action by the city, DEQ officials said. Hangman Creek flows northwest from Idaho into Washington and eventually into the Spokane River.
As you can imagine, this alarmed a lot of people and we’re STILL hearing from folks who are concerned.
Tensed (red marker) in relation to Spokane and the watershed
So first, some background. Tensed, Idaho is a small town in Benewah, County, located within the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, about 57 miles south of Spokane. It, as the Spokesman update indicated, lies on Hangman Creek, and has a wastewater treatment facility that discharges in to Hangman Creek. And of course, as you know, Hangman Creek flows from Idaho in to the Spokane River.
The emails and comments we’ve received have ranged from, “GROSS” to “WTF” to “why aren’t you doing something to hold them accountable”. So here’s some context.
Hangman Creek flows, like Spokane River flows, have experienced a recent surge. Take a look at the recent week of flows on Hangman Creek (chart to the left), where you’ll see some significant highs. Also notice that unlike the Spokane River, Hangman flows vary rapidly day to day as it is a very flashy system (this is partially due to land use influences, [agriculture, impervious surfaces, timber harvest, roads, etc.] as well as stream channel and flood plain alterations over the last 100-years).
Because of those high flows, and the lack of flood controls and/or the fact that Tensed’s facility is situated in the low-lying flood zone, Tensed had to start pumping partially treated, un-disinfected wastewater directly in to Hangman Creek. This is known as a “wastewater bypass”. Here’s some basic info on bypass events:
What occurs during a bypass?
As the name implies, a bypass refers to wastewater that bypasses typical treatment at the wastewater treatment facility. This can occur during flooding when a wastewater treatment facility is located in a low-lying area, and the facility is flooded or otherwise rendered incapable of effectively treating the wastewater. The untreated wastewater bypasses usual treatment and is sent directly into the river. This is a “last resort” type of alternative that is used only when other effective means of dealing with the wastewater is not available. It is used to protect public infrastructure, including trying to prevent wastewater backup from entering people’s homes, which would pose a threat to public health and property damage.
What is in the wastewater that is being bypassed?
From households, it includes the water and wastes that come from your sinks, showers, tubs, toilets, dishwashers, washing machines, and floor drains. It is mostly water, but can contain human wastes, food wastes, detergents and anything else that gets washed down your drain.
What are the potential environmental and health impacts? What should I do to avoid any health impacts?
Avoid any physical contact with the water. Floodwaters can have dangerous currents, and there are also hazards of pathogens in the water. If you have been in contact with floodwaters, avoid touching your mouth or eyes, and try to thoroughly wash off as quickly as possible.
But the question we’ve gotten most is, “is this allowed / legal?”
The answer is yes.
Like all wastewater treatment facilities, the city of Tensed must obtain and comply with a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. In Idaho, these permits are issued by United State Environmental Protection Agency. You can read Tensed’s permit at - http://yosemite.epa.gov/r10/WATER.NSF/NPDES+Permits/Current+ID1319/$FILE/ID0025101FP.pdf
To save you some time, here is the section specific to bypass events:
Bypass is prohibited, and the Director may take enforcement
action against the permittee for a bypass, unless:
i) The bypass was unavoidable to prevent loss of life,
personal injury, or severe property damage;
ii) There were no feasible alternatives to the bypass, such as
the use of auxiliary treatment facilities, retention of
untreated wastes, or maintenance during normal periods of
equipment downtime. This condition is not satisfied if
adequate back-up equipment should have been installed in
the exercise of reasonable engineering judgment to prevent
a bypass that occurred during normal periods of equipment
downtime or preventive maintenance; and
iii) The permittee submitted notices as required under
paragraph 2 of this Part.
In talking with a representative for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the bypass began on March 8 and that Tensed stopped pumping out of the lagoon, in to Hangman Creek in the evening of March 11. According to Idaho DEQ, “They have not discharged out of the lagoons since then and the lagoons are not in danger of overflowing.”
But people were in, and continue to go in contact with Hangman Creek
This is true. Most of the people we are hearing from are paddlers and other recreators who see the high flows on Hangman and know that those are the best times to get out and enjoy the short season that is paddling Hangman Creek. So this is a good reminder for anyone who is swimming, kayaking, canoeing, etc in Hangman Creek or any stream during this time of year that you should practice good safety and hygiene. Shower up after paddling, avoid swallowing stream water, wash your clothes and gear after coming in contact with the stream and know that if you recreate in local streams this time of year, you are at risk of coming in to contact with water that could and probably is impacted by storwmater, sewage bypass or other conditions.
Not to add more fear to the mix, but Hangman is also severely impacted during high flows and runoff season by flooded out septic systems, animal feed lot runoff and flooding and other agricultural run-off and flooding events.
What do we do…
I don’t have a concrete answer or solution here. And I’m open for suggestions. A few things I’ve thought of recently include:
– continuing to advocate for better, more protective agricultural practices on Hangman Creek to reduce the risk of agricultural runoff and the loss of good, protective riparian habitat
– bringing people to the table to have an updated conversation regarding warnings and the notification system of sewage bypasses
– putting pressure on the Washington Department of Ecology, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA to require flood control mechanisms at these small wastewater treatment facilities – think surge controls like what the city is doing to address CSOs
– instituting some kind of water monitoring program and access to information regarding water samples in areas where we know people are recreating and coming in to contact with the Spokane River and tributaries.
– contacting the Riverkeeper with your great ideas on how to solve this so we can get to a solution and a place where the Spokane River and the tributaries really are Fishable and Swimmable YEAR ROUND.