Spokane Riverkeeper

Center for Justice joins forces with ACLU to Increase Voting Registration Opportunities

Individuals now have a much improved opportunity to register to vote when they sign up for public benefits, thanks to efforts made by the Center for Justice along with the ACLU-WA and the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to improve compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

“Changes made by DSHS have strengthened democracy by enhancing access to voting for thousands of people in Washington state,” said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of Spokane’s Center for Justice.

“Access to voting is a cornerstone of democracy,” said Nancy Talner, staff attorney for the ACLU-WA. “We are pleased DSHS took swift action to uphold the NVRA, avoiding costly litigation that has occurred in other states.”

Although best known as the “motor voter law,” the NVRA was designed to reduce demographic gaps in voting by making voter registration more accessible in a variety of ways. Among them: requiring states to offer an opportunity to register to vote whenever someone applies for public benefits, renews benefits or submits a change of address to an agency that provides public assistance.

Until recently, DSHS’s Community Services Division had not offered the opportunity to register to vote as often as the law required, and had not consistently recorded and/or reported when the opportunity was offered, despite the fact that the recession prompted more people to seek benefits from the agency.

After the Center for Justice and ACLU-WA raised the issue with DSHS in 2014, the agency agreed to improve its compliance with the NVRA. In fact, DSHS was already in the process of making improvements as the result of an internal audit it had performed earlier that year. Since then, DSHS has ensured 100 percent of staff in its Community Services Division received training on the requirements of the law, and changed its computer system and paper forms so that workers are always reminded to offer a voter registration opportunity, regardless of whether the contact with the client is online, over the phone or in person.

The percentage of DSHS Community Services Division clients who were offered voter registration assistance increased from 29 percent in January 2014 to 92 percent in August 2015. As the newly adopted technology and reporting systems are implemented, officials expect that number to continue to rise.

“The changes made will help increase the number of historically disenfranchised people who are registered to vote,” said Nancy Talner. “Citizens have a right to make their voices heard by registering to vote and voting. We appreciate the state’s efforts to make this right a reality for those who too often have not had a voice in elections.”

“Ensuring that our clients have the opportunity to register to vote lets us assist people with exercising that fundamental right,” said DSHS Assistant Secretary David Stillman. “It’s also an integral part of our agency’s mission to transform lives.”

Spokane Riverkeeper Joins National Movement to Derail Outdated Train Infrastructure

This week, we joined Waterkeeper Alliance, ForestEthics, and other environmental non-profits in releasing a report exploring the harmful effects of old train foundations. Since 2008, a 5,000 percent increase in oil train traffic has caused a threat to our waterways. This increases the likelihood of environmental disasters.

Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance
Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance

Defects in the rail bridges could lead to an oil train disaster causing oil spills, fires and explosions. In Spokane, we have numerous rail bridges that cross the Spokane River and its offshoots through the downtown area.

From July until September of this year, Waterkeepers from across the nation took a deeper look at 250 railway bridges along known and potential routes of explosive oil trains. Of the 250 railways that were surveyed, 114 bridges— nearly half of the railways we explored—showed signs of significant stress and decay, such as rotted, cracked, or crumbling foundations, and loose or broken beams.

After looking at safety standards for rail bridges, we found that the federal government lacks oversight of inspections and repairs necessary for safe railway bridges. Through our investigation, we found that broad federal law, lax regulations, inadequate inspections, and a lack of authority combine to create a threat from oil trains.

As a result, we are calling for immediate, decisive action by the federal government on this issue.

“What the Waterkeepers have captured shines a light on the need for immediate, independent inspections of all rail bridges that carry explosive oil trains,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “People deserve to know the state of this infrastructure and the risks posed by oil trains rolling through their communities.”

ForestEthics has calculated that oil trains directly threaten the life and safety of 25 million Americans, while also jeopardising the drinking water supply for tens of millions more. Our collaborated report attempts to alert communities about this risk and calls for nationwide action and reform of rail safety standards.

We would like to see the Federal Railroad Administration ensure that no rail bridge be used for oil trains or other hazardous materials unless it passes a rigorous and recent third-party safety inspection with strict federal guidelines to ensure zero risk to our drinking water, our river and our community. For more information about what we found out, check out the official report here.

A note from the Spokane Riverkeeper: A huge thanks to our intern, Bella Colpo, for writing this blog post!

PCB’s 101: A Summary of PCBs and the Spokane River

A note from the Spokane Riverkeeper:  A huge thanks to our intern, Amy Shafer, for researching and writing this blog post.  Her introduction to PCBs comes at a crucial time in Washington State for toxins in our waters.  The EPA recently proposed an alternative water quality standard  and Federal Human Health Criteria that is superior to Washington State’s draft proposal.  In the State’s rule, the allowable cancer risk rate of those who consume fish from Washington State waters is raised from one case of cancer in one million citizens to one case in one hundred thousand citizens.  This has implications for all people who catch and east fish in Washington State, especially those who consume larger amounts of fish, who are very young or are pregnant.  The Spokane Riverkeeper supports the adoption of the proposed EPA rule which calls for the more protective 1:1,000,000 cancer risk rate.   Please comment here or wait and watch our Facebook page and email blasts for the “talking point” highlights from Riverkeeper comments.

Most people in the Spokane area are aware that the Spokane River is polluted. But what is it that’s actually polluting and harming the river and the animals in and around it? PCBs are toxic substances that are greatly affecting the Spokane River and pose a risk to human health.

What are they?

PCB stands for Polychlorinated Biphenyls. These are two benzene rings with 1-10 chlorines attached to them. There are 209 different arrangements of chlorine on these structures and these are called cogeners. PCBs are chemicals that come from old electrical equipment and modern day dyes and pigments. They travel via the air and water, becoming attached to sediments and particles in the water of the Spokane River. They move through the food web of aquatic animals and make their way up the food chain to humans who are eating the fish from the River. PCBs were initially developed in 1929 and were used in several types of equipment because they did not break down, burn, or conduct electricity. They were made illegal in 1979 but the laws allowed some uses to continue under allowable levels of toxicity.

Where do they come from?

PCBs were originally used in many things. They were found in transformers, capacitors, lubricants, caulk, paint, lamp ballasts, florescent lighting, and even newsprint. When PCBs were made illegal these stopped being manufactured but those that were already in use were permitted to continue being used. In addition to these legacy manufactures, there are 70 known manufacturing processes that are inadvertently making PCBs that continue to occur because PCBs are made as a byproduct. The most well-known and studied of these processes is the making of dyes and pigments. PCBs have been found to correlate with brighter colors in paints, pigments, inks, and dyes so it is found in most colored papers, cardboard, plastics, and textiles. The PBCs get released into the environment through manufacturing, use, disposal, and recycling processes.

Fig 1. Once PCBs are in the sediment in bodies of water, they are taken up by invertebrates and make their way up the food chain. Image courtesy of: http://www.epa.gov/housatonic/understandingpcbrisks.html#HowPlantsAnimals
Fig 1. Once PCBs are in the sediment in bodies of water, they are taken up by invertebrates and make their way up the food chain. Image courtesy of: http://www.epa.gov/housatonic/understandingpcbrisks.html#HowPlantsAnimals

PCBs travel through the air until they are eventually deposited onto surfaces where they are then washed away through water and end up in areas like the Spokane River. They don’t dissolve in water and instead attach themselves to mud, organic particles, and sediments at the bottom of the river. The organic particles in the river are then consumed by invertebrates, which are generally at the bottom of the food chain. PCBs are stored in the fat of animals so when that animal gets eaten, all of the PCBs it consumed in its lifetime end up in the predator that ate it. This results in a higher concentration of PCBs in animals’ systems the higher up the food chain one goes. This process is known as bioaccumulation. By the time PCBs reach fish in the Spokane River, the amount of PCB in the tissue is dangerous to consume.

What do they do?

PCBs increase the risk of cancer and other health issues in animals and humans. Studies of people who have been highly exposed to PCBs have shown that PCBs cause skin rashes, immune disorders, liver disease, reproductive disorders, and neurological and behavioral problems, and cancer. While PCBs are dangerous for everyone, there are some people who are especially at risk. People are more likely to come in contact with PCBs if they work around contaminated equipment and materials, work in buildings with PCB materials or florescent light ballasts, or consume fish and seafood from contaminated waters. Small children are more likely to be affected by PCBs as they are still developing and growing and pregnant women who are exposed to high levels of PCB have infants who tend to show neurobehavioral problems. PCBs are stored in fat rather than blood and the human body absorbs it rather than secretes it. Because the body does not remove PCB from its system, the amount of PCB in an individual will increase with age. In 2014 PCBs were reclassified from “probable human carcinogens” to “human carcinogens” by the International Agency for Research of Cancer.

Experiments have been run throughout Washington to find the effects of PCBs on various animals that have been exposed to them. Fish, birds, and mammals such as sea lions, seals, and mink have shown negative effects of exposure to PCBs. They all had reproductive problems, poor muscle coordination, week immune systems, and deformities in their skin and skeletons.

What are we doing about this issue?

The Spokane Riverkeeper mission is to protect and restore the health the Spokane River watershed, and accomplishes that goal through collaborating, educating and when necessary litigating. In 2011 the Spokane Riverkeeper helped create the Toxics Task Force. Its job regarding PCBs is to identify sources of PCBs and reduce the amount of PCBs in the Spokane River. The Task Force is making efforts to consolidate data about PCB sources, transportation, and what becomes of them. They are working on finding the different sources that are involved in dispersal of PCBs through stormwater. They did a massive data collection during dry weather and they intend to do another collection later during a wet season.  The Spokane Toxics Task Force is also trying to identify and reduce PCB production in consumer products where PCBs are a byproduct

Another way we have been trying to bring about change is through political arenas. The Spokane Toxics Task Force has worked for PCB restriction, encouraged purchase of low and non-PCB products for public use, and addressed the need to reduce inadvertently made PCBs. In June of 2014 the City of Spokane enacted an ordinance that had a preference for City purchases to be PCB free. We are also working on public outreach. Measures are being taken to educate the community about what PCBs are and the dangers that they bring about. One example is fish advisories that have also been created by the Washington Department of Health to let people know what fish is safe to eat and where in the river it can be caught from. (see image below).  Additionally, all Washington Waterkeeper’s are advocating for the most protective Human Heath Criteria as proposed in the EPA’s draft rule.  The Spokane Riverkeeper will be asking people to sign letters, and make comments in support of a very protective rule.  Such a rule will help in the reduction of PCBs entering.

This fish advisory was created by the Washington Department of Health and the image is courtesy of: http://spokaneriver.net/public-guide-2/fish-consumption-advisory-cleanup/
This fish advisory was created by the Washington Department of Health and the image is courtesy of: http://spokaneriver.net/public-guide-2/fish-consumption-advisory-cleanup/

Why should you care?

Being aware of health issues in the community is key to keeping yourself and your family healthy and happy. When you go to swim in the Spokane River you should be sure to wash off hands, feet, face, and toys before eating or leaving. If you eat fish from the Spokane River you should be sure to eat no more than the advised amount set by the Washington Department of Health.

We at Spokane Riverkeeper are doing all that we can to stop pollution of the Spokane River and keep our environment clean. We cannot do this alone though. You can also help your community by donating money or volunteering your time to help us out. The Spokane River clean-up was a huge success this year and we owe that to citizens of Spokane like yourself. Stay informed of what’s going on in your local community and take ownership for the beautiful environment around you. This river belongs to all of us, let’s make it something to be proud of.

Picture courtesy of: http://spokaneriver.net/meet-me-at-the-river-raft-and-kayak-eco-tours/
Picture courtesy of: http://spokaneriver.net/meet-me-at-the-river-raft-and-kayak-eco-tours/

Our guest author, Amy Shafer, is a senior at Gonzaga University studying biology and political science, with aims to work in environmental policy.  She interns as a our PCB Outreach Coordinator. 

Why We’re Still “Fishing” For Clean Water in Hangman Creek

For thousands of years, Chinook salmon and steelhead made the incredible journey up the Columbia and Spokane Rivers, into Hangman Creek to lay their eggs. Salmon thrived in a creek with clean, cold water. However, with the current condition of the watershed, this is no longer the case. In recent years, only remnants of these fish populations can make it in the very few headwaters. Fecal material and eroded soil causes nutrients like phosphorus to deprive oxygen for aquatic ecosystems from the water and causing toxic algae blooms on Lake Spokane.

This is bad news for the fish, but also for anyone who enjoys swimming or boating in the creek.

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Agricultural pollution in Hangman Creek, June of 2015
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Hangman Creek runs muddy with sediment in the summer of 2015. Poor agricultural practices allow thousands of tons of soil to wash into Hangman Creek annually.

Poor land use and agricultural practices continue to prevent stream recovery and clean water that all Washingtonians are entitled to enjoy. Cattle commonly graze along the banks of the Hangman Creek and are allowed to pollute the waters that people swim and fish in downstream. Swimming or even boating in this water puts recreational users at risk and degrades the capacity for the creek to support aquatic life. Would you want to swim in a pool of cow dung in the summertime?

Even more concerning, essential trees and bushes have intentionally been torn away from much of the riverbanks in order to squeeze crops and livestock onto every available square foot of land, poor agricultural practices have turned wetlands and tributaries into drainage ditches. Thousands of acres of surrounding soils are intentionally left exposed and allowed to erode into Hangman Creek. Basically, the watershed is extremely damaged.

The Clean Water Act and Washington State law requires the recovery of clean water and habitats that support the trout and salmon. Obviously, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t been holding these standards in Hangman Creek. So we did something about it.

The plan to restore the Hangman Creek habitat lacks the accountability pieces that will assure its success. So we challenged the EPA to rework this plan in order to provide an enforceable, transparent, well-funded plan to make Hangman Creek fishable and swimmable.

Spokane River Temperature Study

The summer of 2015 brought historically hot and dry conditions to the Inland Northwest.  Record low rainfall and record high heat, combined with very low snowpack, caused record low flows on the Spokane River.  We knew little about what these conditions would have on water temperatures in the Spokane River, so we placed continuous water temperature loggers in a few areas of the river.  Due to the complex interaction between the Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer and the Spokane River, we expected to see a wide range of water temperatures.  What we found were water temperatures that reflected the complex interaction with our aquifer, upriver temperatures that were too hot for our native Redband Trout, and data that led to many more questions.   First, a bit of Spokane River hydrology.

The Spokane River flows out of Lake Coeur d’Alene and over the Post Falls Dam.  The water in this “losing reach” of the Spokane River between Lake Coeur d’Alene and Sullivan Road is slowly seeping into the ground, replenishing our groundwater.  Water temperature in this stretch of the river should be similar to the water temperature at the surface of Lake Coeur d’Alene, plus any warming that occurred in the river.  Ground water also feeds the Spokane River.  The Spokane-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, provides cool groundwater to the “gaining reaches” of the Spokane River (see map below), which come in mostly below Sullivan Road.  Water temperatures in and downriver of these gaining reaches should be much cooler than the upriver section of river, depending on the proportion of cool aquifer water in the river.

In late June we saw dead fish and measured very warm temperatures in the Spokane River near Barker Road.  This prompted us to place temperature loggers at five locations along the Spokane River in early July.  Two at losing reaches in the upriver section at Harvard Road and Barker Road and three at gaining reaches at Islands Trailhead, Water Street (downstream from downtown), and TJ Meenach Bridge (see map below). temperature logger locationsOur method was simple, we placed Hobo Tidbits temperature data loggers which we set to record water temperature every 30 minutes in a short PVC tube for shade.  They were then placed in the river at a depth of about two feet.  The logger placed at Water Street was stolen, but the other loggers recorded temperature data from 7/16/15 to 8/20/15.

Water temperatures in the Spokane River varied dramatically between some locations.  The average temperature at Harvard and Barker Road was 23.6 and 23.5 C, respectively, while the temperature downriver at Islands Trailhead and TJ Meenach Bridge was 13.6 and 15.1 C, respectively.  This is a difference of over 8.5 C (15 F).  This difference shows the influence of the aquifer on the down and upriver sections of river.

Data Summary of Spokane River Temperature Gages (summary courtesy of Allan Scholz of EWU)
         Location                Dates (inclusive)                Average temp (C)                   Range of daily average temp (C)      
    Islands Trailhead           July 16 – August 20            13.6                   12.7 (on 8/20) – 15.9 (on 7/20)
        Harvard Rd           July 16 – August 20           23.6                 22.3 (on 7/27) – 24.7(on 8/13)
        TJ Meenach           July 16 – August 20           15.1                14.2 (on 8/20) – 17.1 (on 8/12)
        Barker Rd             July 16 – August 20             23.5                  21.7 (on 7/26) – 25.5 (on 7/20)

Looking at the data graphically, it gets a bit more interesting (see graph below).  The upstream loggers at Harvard and Barker Road showed very similar patterns.  Comparing the upstream loggers to the minimum and maximum air temperatures in Spokane (data courtesy of NWS Spokane), shows that warmer air temperatures translate into warmer water temperatures (no surprise there).  Differences between daily maximum and minimum water temperatures at the upriver loggers were about 5 C, and varied between about 20 C and 27 C.

The two loggers influenced by the aquifer, at Island Trailhead and TJ Meenach Bridge, showed much cooler temperatures, small temperature variation, and seemed to be influenced less by air temperature than by other factors.  Temperatures at these locations varied by about 2 C daily, between approximately 12 and 17 C degrees at Island Trailhead and 14 and 17 C degrees at TJ Meenach Bridge.  Although daily air temperatures do seem to affect water temperatures at these locations, another factor may have an even larger affect.

spokane river temperature graph After 7/23/15 water temperatures at Island Trailhead become much colder than that at TJ Meenach Bridge, having remained similar for the previous week.  This divergence in water temperature correlated with the reduction in flow out of the Post Falls Dam (see flow graph below) from 640 cubic feet/second (cfs) to 500 cfs.  The drop in water temperature at Islands Trailhead could be due to the reduction of warm water flowing over the dam and into the river,  increasing the proportion of the cool aquifer water in the river at Islands Trailhead.  Although this explains the drop in temperature at Islands Trailhead, it does not explain the divergence of water temperatures between Islands Trailhead and TJ Meenach Bridge.  More data will be required to explain why temperature at TJ Meenach remains more or less constant, while flow seems to affect water temperature at Islands Trailhead.

post falls gage 7-18-15 through 8-20-15

Water temperatures in our river affect our native Redband Trout, a fish that needs cool, clean water to survive.  Water temperatures seen this summer in the upper river are much too high for trout (see graph below).  In fact, trout numbers in this stretch of the river are dropping.  Although competition and predation from other fish likely play a role, during some summers water temperatures are much too hot for trout in this section of river.

spokane river temperature graph with redband criteria

Next summer the Spokane Riverkeeper hopes to expand this study.  If we can find funding to purchase more temperature data loggers, we can monitor more sections of the Spokane River, including tributaries.  Our studies will provide long term data in a river system that has complex temperature dynamics, that as far as we know, is not being taken by any one else.

 

 

 

A Guide to the New Downtown Spokane River Access Point

The new Downtown Spokane River Access Point opens this week.  Located directly under the Division Street Bridge off of the Centennial Trail on the south side of the Spokane River, the launch provides canoers, kayakers, and paddleboarders convenient water access in downtown Spokane. I launched the Riverkeeper canoe there this week for my weekly litter pickup and thought I would give you a quick guide to the Division Street Boat Launch.

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The new Downtown Spokane River Access Point provides easy access to the Spokane River underneath the Division Street Bridge

The launch provides walk up access to the water on a six foot wide gently sloping gravel path making it easy to launch canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards.  However, vessels without paddles such as inner tubes and small rafts should not be launched here because the upper falls dam is directly downstream of the launch (in fact it is illegal to float west of the Division Street Bridge).  Large rafts and boats cannot be launched here as well.

Parking:   I unloaded my canoe at the Courtyard by Marriott, which is the closest parking lot to the access point.  I checked with the front desk and they are happy to let river users load and unload gear in their parking lot, but do not allow parking for non hotel users.  After unloading, I parked at the metered all day on street parking on Spokane Falls Blvd. and Pine ($1 per 2.5 hours, bring change).  If you are just out for a quick paddle, one hour free parking is located on E. Olive Way, in front of the Marriott.  Alternately, the Convention Center has covered pay parking in its parking garage or you could park in one of the many lots operated by Diamond parking near the River Access.

parking for division street launch3

Using the River Access Point:  I quickly navigated the stairs and ramps down to the River Access lugging our 80 pound canoe.  After that it is an easy walk down to the Spokane River on the graveled ramp.  This year water levels in the Spokane River are very low, creating a perfect low current environment to launch our canoe.  I simply placed the canoe in the water, donned my PFD, and paddled away.  I didn’t want to set my canoe down on the rocks at the bottom of the ramp and risk dinging it.  During higher flows or high winds an anchor or rope would be handy to prevent your vessel from drifting away.

division street launch div bridge from water
Division Street Bridge from the Water.

On the Water Experience:  From the River Access Point, you must paddle upstream (east) to avoid the Upper Falls dam.  However, there are plenty of warning signs so don’t worry about getting confused.  Traveling east along the river is a serene, flat water experience, with little current and incredibly clear water.  No rapids exist in this stretch of water, making it an ideal place to paddle.    I saw numerous trout rise and plenty of large sucker fish on the rocky river bottom.  The riverbank along this stretch of the Spokane River is tree lined and somewhat steep, with the views of the Centennial Trail and the occasional office building.  The aquifer feeds this part of the Spokane River, creating remarkably cold and clear water.  I easily paddled up to the No-Li brewery and back in about 2.5 hours, stopping to pick up some litter along the way.

Summary:  The Downtown Spokane River Access Point provides a very easy way for canoers, kayakers, or paddleboarders to get a quick paddle in on a unique stretch of the River.  Opening this stretch of river allows easy access for people working downtown a great lunchtime (or pre/post work) paddle.  From almost anywhere in downtown Spokane you can be on the River in minutes!

Water Temperatures: Dead Fish and Hot Water

Yesterday, with the help of Ian from St. George’s School, I grabbed our temperature loggers from Hangman Creek and the Little Spokane River.  We set them up to collect data every hour.  As you can see from the graphs below, Hangman Creek experienced very hot temperature in June and early July, peaking at 27.5 C (81.5 F)!  The Little Spokane River had a much lower maximum temperature, with peaks of about 18 C (64 F).  hangman graph

lsr graphDifferences in water temperature are primarily due to the influence of the aquifer on these creeks.  Cold (50-52 F) groundwater from the aquifer feeds the Little Spokane River, cooling the River and provides a steady source of water in an otherwise dry year.  Hangman Creek does not have an aquifer to feed and has much lower flows and warmer water.  However, Hangman Creek lacks another important factor that regulates water temperature: riparian vegetation.  I will write more about that in another post, but keep that in the back of your mind.

Water temperatures on the Spokane River have come down a bit at Barker Road since my last measurements (see table below), but still measure in the lethal range to fish.  Downriver at Plantes Ferry, Water Street and TJ Menach Bridge, temperatures are much cooler, due to the influence of the aquifer.

Location Date Time Water Temp C Water Temp F
Water Street 7/15/2015 1600 15.9 60.62
TJ Menach 7/15/2015 1645 17 62.6
11th Street Bridge 7/15/2015
Barker Road 7/15/2015 1345 25.6 78.08
Plantes Ferry 7/15/2015 1505 16.1 60.98
Harvard Road 7/15/2015 1420 25.6 78.08

I spotted a number of dead fish, one of which my coworker confirmed was a German Brown Trout.  Three dead bridge lipped sucker fish were spotted as well.

dead brown trout

The historically high temperatures and low flows in the Spokane River clearly have created deadly conditions for fish.  Whether this fish died outright because of temperatures stress or because of exhaustion after a long fight with an angler, it is clear that fish are dying and the water is very warm in places.

 

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…