The swirling waters of the Spokane River bounced Jill McComas through the Flora rapids like a pinball, sometimes on her car-tire inner tube, sometimes off. She laughed as she was repeatedly dumped into the bathtub-warm water. Her husband, Sam, warned McComas to get ready as the water was about to race through another string of boulders.
“Hold on. Hold on,” Sam yelled.
No time to stop. These days, when the temperature rises, rafts line up on the Spokane River like airplanes on the tarmac at SeaTac. Anything that floats will do.
Public interest in the river is perhaps higher than it has ever been. People jog along its banks on the Centennial Trail. They fish it, float it, paddle it, and swim it. A float down the Spokane Valley stretch of the river, from Harvard Road near Otis Orchards to Boulder Beach some 12 miles downstream, reveals that every 100 yards or so the river’s babble blends with the chatter of people. Once a slurry for industrial and municipal waste, the river now slakes our need for recreation and solace.
Public interest in the Spokane River is changing the way the river is managed. And the interest is also posing new challenges to the health of the river. Experts say we’re at a confluence of changes with dams being relicensed and community pollution on the rise.
Some tough decisions have to be made. Take dam relicensing, for example.
All power dams need approval from the federal government and five Spokane River dams owned by Avista Corp. are up for relicensing now. Licensing used to be a fairly private affair with the dam company negotiating with half a dozen government agencies for a permit.
But the public is now weighing in as river “stakeholders” as Avista seeks federal licensing for five dams stretching from Post Falls to Long Lake. The negotiating table now has more seats than a movie theater. Some of those stakeholders are government agencies that previously showed no interest in river matters, but most of the groups are composed of citizens.
“In this case we have well over 100 stakeholders, probably more like 120,” said Hugh Imhof, Avista spokesman. “They’re diverse.”
Two-thirds of the people weighing in on the relicensing have never participated before, but nearly half reported being active in Spokane River issues for at least five years.
Avista is going to try to address all the community’s river demands, Imhof said. No one group is likely to get exactly what it wants from the Spokane River, but Avista will try to make sure the majority of stakeholders get something. The company will then organize a stakeholder committee, with which to weigh in annually to see how the river plan is working.
Stakeholders have a laundry list of issues, among them leaving more water in the river and boosting the summer water level for occasional weekend events. Of course the opposite is also true. Stakeholders from Coeur d’Alene want the water level of Lake Coeur d’Alene to rise so they want to extend the summer period when the water is withheld from the river to keep the lake full.
However the majority of the stakeholders say water quality and maintaining river flows at levels that assure the river remains attractive are their top interests. That community attention to the attractiveness of the river hasn’t always existed.
Not long ago, the river was only an afterthought for some residents, said John Patrouch, an avid kayaker who lives on a Spokane Valley stretch of the river.
Thirteen years ago, when Patrouch first found his home on the south bank of the Spokane River, just downstream from Barker Road Bridge, he had no idea it was a riverfront property.
“It was advertised as a house in the Valley on two acres of land, period. There was no mention of it being on the river,” Patrouch said. “The people who were selling didn’t think it was important.”
Now, there are homes recently built upstream from Patrouch selling for $240,000. And on the east side of Barker Road, two 500-home subdivisions are rising like cattails on the river’s south bank. On the north bank stands an older mobile home park, an unlikely addition given today’s interest in the river’s edge.
But there’s also the chance the Spokane River will be loved to death by people moving to the river’s edge, said Michael Maher, who tackles shoreline issues for the state Department of Ecology. Lush green lawns cropping up along the Spokane River’s banks are likely being treated with fertilizers, which can cause algae problems. Back yards along the river tend to see intense recreational use, which stresses the river. And the natural bird habit areas along the banks are threatened by development.
Older homes along the river weren’t built so close to the bank, Maher said. A mix of old and new development exists on Maringo Drive in Pasadena Park, where new riverfront homes are being built in the back yards of older houses that were built away from the banks.
The public’s impact on the river doesn’t stop at the bank, however, said John Covert, a DOE hydrologist working on the river’s relationship with the aquifer. The aquifer and the river are so coupled that the underground water source ebbs and flows almost simultaneously with the river. When it rains, both river and aquifer rise. When the long, dry days of summer sap the river, the aquifer also loses its punch.
There are areas on the Spokane River where the aquifer swallows thousands of gallons a minute, leaving the riverbed bare. One such area is near Harvard Road, where the water dips to inner tube-dragging levels.
And there are areas where the aquifer pours water back into the thirsty Spokane. Standing on the north bank, just downstream from the Sullivan Road Bridge, 11-year-old Theresa Pajimola points to an area where the aquifer recharges the river.
“The water is really cold here,” said Pajimola, who has been swimming with her brothers, Cyrus and Kevyn, to beat the summer heat.
Other parts of the river are as tepid as a lukewarm bath, but this spot where the Pajimolas swim with their caretaker Tanya Gilbert is a chilly 49 degrees. Water dribbles through the north bank like coffee though a percolator.
If it weren’t for spots like the one at Sullivan Bridge, the Spokane River would look a lot different, Covert said. There are no streams feeding the Spokane as it meanders from the state line to Latah Creek; area surface water seeps through the rocky soil before it can reach the river.
But also seeping into the aquifer are harmful fertilizers, household waste, motor oil and sewage from the thousands of area homes hooked up to septic systems. Everything that reaches the aquifer reaches the Spokane River and ecologists say they’re engaged in an uphill battle to convince citizens that whatever is dumped into the ground, no matter how small, jeopardizes the river and drinking water.
There is awareness among the public that the river is polluted.
“It’s one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the country,” said Gary Becker, as he sat on a boulder in the Spokane River sipping a beer. His assertion isn’t far from the truth. An April 2004 report from the American Rivers conservation group listed the Spokane as sixth among the nation’s most threatened rivers.
Becker lives within walking distance of the river. From where he sits, just downstream from Harvard Road, the town seems to disappear behind willow trees and tall wild grass. This is where he comes for solitude, to sun himself.
There has always been a river in Becker’s life, he said. Here flows his solitude.