July 14, 2008 in City

Spokane River paddlers note thick development, landscaping practices

By The Spokesman-Review


Spokane River interactive map

Audio, illustrations and more

Promoting safe boating

Homeowners along the Spokane River are starting a RiverWatch program to report unsafe boating activity to the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department marine patrol. The nine-mile stretch of river between Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Post Falls Dam is increasingly congested, and not everyone obeys the rules, said Steve Shamion, president of the Spokane River Association, which represents 250 property owners. Tailgating, speeding and boaters failing to obey no-wake zones are some of the more frequent problems. The speed limit on the river is 35 mph during the day; 20 mph at night. Speeding tickets for boaters are $57.

Ross Walkinshaw feels fortunate that his view hasn’t changed since 1947, when his parents bought 80 acres on the south side of the Spokane River. From his boat dock, Walkinshaw still sees a wall of towering pine trees on the opposite bank.

“That’s the Post Falls Kiwanis Park,” he said last week, pointing to a sandy beach where kids were playing. “And that’s the Ross Point Baptist Camp.”

The adjacent properties – owned by the two nonprofits – are a woodsy haven along an increasingly developed stretch of the Spokane River.

I talked to Walkinshaw in preparation for paddling the nine miles between Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Post Falls Dam. I wanted a longtime resident’s view of the river.

Walkinshaw, 67, was a second-grader when his parents moved from Hollywood, Calif., to the rustic North Idaho property where he still lives. Walkinshaw’s dad worked for the telephone company. The family also raised chickens and hay. They made do with an outhouse.

Walkinshaw used to row across the river to play with the children of the family that ran the Baptist camp. Sometimes, bundles of floating logs – bound for a downstream sawmill – blocked his way.

“Then, we’d have to wait for hours to get access,” Walkinshaw said. “The river was not considered a desirable place to live in the 1950s.  …  They called us ‘river rats.’ ”

Our group of paddlers saw a much different river. Housing development was the recurring theme of conversation as 21 people paddled down the river on a trip organized by the Spokane River Forum. The group put in at North Idaho College’s beach Friday and paddled to Q’emiln Park in Post Falls.

Older cottages were tucked into the trees. Multimillion-dollar homes sprouted from basalt outcroppings. New homes were under construction on former sawmill sites.

Until 2001, three sawmills operated on this stretch of the Spokane River. On a hot August day of that year, I spent the afternoon in the parking lot of Crown Pacific’s sawmill, interviewing workers who’d just learned that the mill would close in 60 days.

For nearly a century, the mill on Huetter Road turned logs from North Idaho’s forests into matchsticks, then lumber. The site is now the Mill River housing development.

The change reflects broader shifts in North Idaho’s economy. Once a blue-collar region of mining and timber jobs, the local economy is now tied to tourism and real estate.

“Starter castles!” one woman said as the canoes and kayaks passed a particularly lavish group of waterfront homes farther down the river. One looked plucked out of a Bavarian forest. It came with gargoyles.

Another home on the river, the 26,000-square-foot Amway house, is something of a local landmark. Ron and Georgia Lee Puryear, who earned their fortune in multilevel marketing, spent more than four years constructing the elaborate mansion. It’s worth $12.4 million, according to the Kootenai County Assessor’s Office.

“I was really shocked by the density of the houses and how close they were to the river,” said Lyn Roberts, a kayaker from Sandpoint who’d never been paddling on the Spokane River before.

The verdant lawns also provoked discussion. When the lawns extend to the water, fertilizers and pesticides wash into the river, paddlers noted.

“It was bizarre not to see environmentally progressive landscaping,” said Mike LaScuola, the Spokane Regional Health Department’s environmental health specialist. “I think people who live on the river have an obligation to make sure they’re not having an impact on water quality.”

Runoff from development isn’t well regulated, said Bob Steed, a water quality ecologist for Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“Our pollution reduction is aimed at forest practices, agriculture and mining,” Steed said. “We do not have as many rules, regulations and programs to reduce pollution from development.”

In Idaho, the counties are responsible for establishing setbacks for waterfront development. Counties also determine whether native vegetation must be left as a buffer.

Once per month, Walkinshaw and his wife, Vicky, head out in their pontoon boat to gather water samples in the Spokane River. They’ve participated in a citizens monitoring program for seven years.

The clarity of the water in the river is generally good, Walkinshaw said. But the river muddies up after a busy boating weekend, when 100 or more powerboats and personal watercraft pass by the couple’s property daily. The lapping waves have eaten away 10 feet of their shoreline.

Even the Kootenai County Assessor’s Office has acknowledged the loss of land, according to Walkinshaw, who said he gets a slight break on his taxes.

The Spokane River’s popularity as a place to live and recreate still surprises Walkinshaw.

“It used to be that if a boat was coming down the river  …  we all went down to see it,” he said. “We wanted to know if it was someone we knew.”

Contact Becky Kramer at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at beckyk@spokesman.com.

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