July 22, 2008 in City, Idaho

Water quality remains issue on Spokane River

New discharge standards costly; action dates to ’09
By The Spokesman-Review

Signs posted along the Spokane River early this month warn of sewer overflows. Reducing the overflows is part of $500 million effort keep phosphorus out of the river.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

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Reporter Becky Kramer is paddling the Spokane River on a trip arranged by the Spokane River Forum.


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Getting tangled in water lilies is a hazard of kayaking at Long Lake. The reservoir’s upper end sports a luxuriant growth, and as I paddled I periodically flung tendrils of vegetation at my kayak partner.

The graceful white flowers signal trouble in the lake. They’re fertilized by 66 million gallons of wastewater that flow daily into the Spokane River.

“As you and other community members travel down the river, don’t forget to notice and mention the things you can’t see,” Roger Rouleau told me in an e-mail.

Look for churning in the river near Coeur d’Alene’s sewage treatment plant, he said. Or the egg-shaped digesters in Riverside State Park, which are part of Spokane’s sewage treatment system.

Rouleau runs a commercial diving company in Spokane. He frequently works on sewage treatment outfall pipes.

“It amazes me,” he said, “how many people have no idea what happens to sewage once it’s discharged from their home.”

Most of the sewage is treated and floated down the river. In the slow-moving Long Lake reservoir, phosphorus from the discharges spurs rapid aquatic growth. Aerial photos show vivid green bands of floating vegetation along the shore.

On Saturday morning, our paddling group put in below Nine Mile Dam, near the confluence with the Little Spokane River. The site is pivotal in local history. In 1810, two of David Thompson’s men built a fur trading post where the rivers meet – a traditional gathering spot for local tribes. The post was called Spokane House.

I looked forward to seeing the reservoir from a kayak. Long Lake is the poster child for the Spokane River’s water quality problems. Efforts to boost the reservoir’s dissolved oxygen levels are triggering some of the strictest phosphorus controls in the country. In addition to the recent ban on the sale of the dishwater detergents containing phosphates, municipalities and companies will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to meet new discharge standards. For the city of Spokane alone, the tab is close to $500 million.

I was also a little anxious about paddling 18 miles through a slack water reservoir, with powerboat wakes and possible headwinds. The day before, I bought a pair of padded biking gloves to guard against blisters.

The 24-mile Long Lake reservoir was created by the 1915 construction of Long Lake Dam. It was later renamed Lake Spokane, but most lake residents don’t use that name.

“It will always be Long Lake to us,” said Benita Mason, who grew up on the lake and tells stories about Indians fishing and early settlers.

We saw plenty of plant growth as we paddled down the lake, including patches of invasive Eurasian milfoil. By August, algae can also be a problem. As they decay, the plants also rob the water of dissolved oxygen.

Long Lake hosts five bass tournaments each year. It also has perch and crappie. But those are introduced fish species that thrive in warm water reservoirs. The lake has colder water – at depths of 30 to 40 feet – that could support trout. However, the dissolved oxygen that fish require for breathing drops to almost zero at those depths.

Phosphorus also contributes to periodic bouts of toxic blue-green algae in the lake. The last bad episode was in 2001.

“It looks like green and white paint poured on the water, and it smells horrible,” said Galen Buterbaugh, a retired fish biologist, who lives on Long Lake – downstream, he noted, from an urban area of 600,000 people.

Sewage discharges into the Spokane River have been controversial for nearly a century. In 1909, the Washington Department of Health issued a “cease and desist” order to the city of Spokane for dumping untreated sewage into the river. City residents didn’t want to shoulder the cost. In the 1930s, they twice defeated bond measures for treatment plants. The city’s first sewage treatment plant began operating in 1957, but it only screened out solid waste, said Dale Arnold, the city’s wastewater director.

In 1977, the city built a more sophisticated, secondary treatment plant, which removes most of the phosphorus. Despite 30 years of efforts, however, nutrients in Long Lake remain a problem.

The presence of Long Lake Dam also contributes to poor water quality. As a prerequisite for a new dam license, Avista Corp. agreed to quantify the dam’s role in low dissolved oxygen levels and craft a plan for addressing them.

“It can be cleaner, and we want to be part of that,” said Bruce Howard, Avista’s environmental affairs director. But Long Lake’s water quality has already come a long way, he said.

“In the 1970s, there were massive outbreaks of blue-green algae that killed fish,” Howard said.

A confession: I didn’t see the end of Long Lake from a kayak. By lunch, when we pulled into a picnic site across from the McClellan Conservation Area, paddling partner Pat Munts and I could barely lift our arms. Twelve miles, we decided, was a valiant effort.

We caught a ride aboard Ron and Kristy Reed Johnson’s 27-foot aluminum power boat, which the Post Falls couple were using to monitor our pod of kayaks.

While dedicated paddlers finished the entire leg, Kristy Johnson handed me two pillows. I curled up and took a nap.

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

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