Padlocked gates aren’t Stann Grater’s vision for the Spokane River.
Instead, the fly-fishing guide would like to see plenty of put-ins and take-outs, easily accessible to rafters, kayakers and drift boats. More than 100 residents share Grater’s dream, which he’s formalized as the Spokane River Recreation Access Coalition.
“At the Clark Fork River in Montana, you’ve got access points every 3 ½ to 4 miles,” Grater said. “It’s the same on the Boise River, and on the Bow River in Calgary. On the Chattahoochee River, in downtown Atlanta, you can catch brown trout and rainbows right underneath the skyscrapers.”
Grater envies that kind of access. On the Spokane River, most access requires hefting boats around locked public gates to launch sites. That’s OK for brawny kayakers and rafters with lightweight crafts, he said, but less feasible for fly fishers with 300-pound drift boats.
“I can’t carry my little boat out there,” Tim Reed, a disabled veteran, said Tuesday, as he looked longingly at the Spokane River flowing past the Water Street launch in Peaceful Valley. The gate to the city-owned launch was padlocked.
The coalition’s eventual goal is multiple boat launches with carefully controlled trailer access, so the shoreline doesn’t get torn up. In the short term, however, Grater and others are focused on two sites.
They’ve asked the Spokane Parks and Recreation Department what it would take to unlock gates at the Water Street and T.J. Meenach boat launches.
Unlocking the gates would open a new section of the river to drift boats, Grater said. Some anglers already launch at Water Street, dragging their boats across a field to get to the river, he said.
Two fly-fishing groups, a rafting association and dozens of individuals are backing the proposal, along with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which favors more recreational fishing opportunities on the Spokane River. But city officials have concerns.
“It’s not as easy as unlocking gates,” said Taylor Bressler, a Spokane Parks and Recreation planner who’s met with Grater several times.
“Stann and company, they’re upset because I’m not giving them immediate access to the river. But when you invite the public down, you have to consider the impact on the neighborhood.”
Parking is a problem on Water Street. It’s a narrow residential lane that doesn’t have room for boat trailers, Bressler said.
The Meenach boat launch, downstream from the T.J. Meenach Bridge, was once a troublesome party spot, plagued by illegal fires and vandalism. Cutting off vehicle access to the water helped eliminate undesirable activity, said Bressler, who fought for the current gate.
“Fly-fishing is a lovely sport, but it’s complicated when you’re trying to achieve it in an urban setting,” he said. “The city is managing its public land along a fragile river.”
Bressler said that he’s sympathetic to the coalition’s overall goals but that opening gates would require studies and permits. If the coalition is serious, they should apply for grants to fund the work, he said.
Grater said the coalition’s willing to do its part. Volunteers are ready to clean up the trash that might result from increased use of launch sites.
The coalition is also willing to raise money for landscape boulders to keep vehicles out of fragile shoreline areas. The river would benefit from an increased fly fisher presence, he said.
“These people aren’t in there drinking beer and throwing trash cans in the river,” Grater said. “They’re the ones cleaning it up.”
The Spokane River is regaining its place at the heart of the city, said Andy Dunau, founder of the nonprofit Spokane River Forum, a think tank for river issues.
As more people discover the river, more of them want to boat on it. That makes access discussions inevitable, Dunau said.
“The desire to increase river access is becoming part of the public conversation,” he said. “If we view it as part of the public domain, of course we want to open it up.”