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Shoring up access

Sat., Nov. 28, 2009

River users working with officials to open boat ramps

It seems “insane” to Andy Dunau to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up the Spokane River without improving recreational access.

Dunau is executive director of the Spokane River Forum, an umbrella organization for kayakers, canoers, rafters and anglers.

“We’re nondenominational,” said fly-fishing guide Stann Grater. “My passion for this is not just for fly fishermen. It’s for all the users.”

That includes those he calls driftwooders, “the guys who are going down there on their Wal-Mart $1.99 death coffins.”

“Everybody is looking for access, and I believe the more access, the better it is for everybody,” said Terry Miller, access chairman for the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club.

More users means more people to keep an eye on access points where littering, vandalism and other illicit activities might occur, Dunau said.

He believes the Spokane River, flowing through Spokane and Spokane Valley, is a gem that has been locked up too long.

Government officials tend to agree, and the movement is starting to produce results.

State and county officials are working to preserve an informal boat launch at the Idaho border, the city of Spokane Valley moved its new Barker Road Bridge to save another access point, and the city of Spokane is moving to reopen two launches and create a third.

“I am intrigued by the thought of greater access,” Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said. “That river is the heart of our city and such a valuable asset.”

She noted the city plans a new staging area for kayaks and other nonmotorized craft on municipal property near Upriver Dam.

Leroy Eadie, acting Spokane Parks and Recreation director, said city officials must be careful of shoreline protection regulations, but would like to reopen two locked-up boat launches at Water Street in Peaceful Valley and at the T.J. Meenach Bridge.

“You definitely have good support in the department for providing access,” Eadie said. “We’ll find a resolution. I, 100 percent, believe we’ll find a resolution.”

That would address one of Grater’s main complaints.

While the locked gates are no obstacle for rafters and kayakers, fly fishermen use drift boats that weigh about 350 pounds. The boats don’t require concrete launches, but they’re too heavy and awkward to carry.

Eadie envisions a “demonstration project” in which keys to the gates might, as in the past, be distributed to user groups while a long-term plan is developed.

Still, there’s much to do if the little-used Spokane River is to take its place among recreational streams that pass through metropolitan areas.

Grater said other river cities have access points every 4 to 4 1/2 miles.

“Then you can do an afternoon float, or you can do an all-day float,” he said.

With that much access, a river becomes more than a backdrop for photographs.

Grater said he once caught a 20-inch brown trout on the Chattahoochee River in downtown Atlanta, and people can rent boats to float through downtown Boise.

Pittsburgh and Chattanooga, Tenn., also have done a better job of treasuring their urban rivers, Dunau said.

“What Spokane has is unbelievable,” Grater said. “Once you get on the river, it’s like you’re in Montana.”

Harry Sladich, president and chief executive of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he experienced that feeling of being somewhere else on a float trip through the Bowl and Pitcher section of the river at Riverside State Park.

His impression is that Spokane residents long believed the river was too dangerous, but newcomers – such as a visiting film crew that couldn’t find a place to rent inner tubes – “have really started to challenge our perspective on that.”

Dunau also feels attitudes about the river are changing.

“It’s a lot of fun helping people rediscover the Spokane River,” he said.

Although the Convention and Visitors Bureau generally doesn’t endorse individual projects, “overall we’re very receptive to this community embracing the river and having access to it,” Sladich said.

The Spokane River is an “iconic feature” of the community that fits perfectly with the bureau’s “near nature” slogan, he said.

“I would love to see kayaks on top of cars parked in front of Nordstrom’s,” Sladich said.

There’s no need to fear motorized personal watercraft in Riverfront Park.

Motorboats and motorized personal watercraft are banned in the Spokane River from the Idaho state line to the Plese Flats Day Use Area in Riverside State Park, except in the section between Plante’s Ferry Park and Park Road.

The Spokane River Forum’s call for access doesn’t include motors.

“This is all about small-footprint stuff with best management practices for shorelines and native vegetation,” Dunau said.

Grater participates in the Spokane River Forum through the nascent Spokane River Recreational Access Coalition.

The coalition includes the Spokane Fly Fishers, the Northwest Whitewater Association and the Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club.

“We’re crowding about 300 people on our mailing list,” Grater said.

Dunau said the overarching Spokane River Forum has 200 to 300 paying members and more than 14,000 people on its mailing list.

The numbers suggest an ability to pay as well as to wield political clout.

“We don’t have any money yet, but we’re willing to go to work and try to get some,” Grater said. “We are not opposed to a pay-to-play sort of system.”

Miller said the 165-family Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club “has an access fund and is willing to use it.”

Dunau envisions the Centennial Trail as the backbone of a “water trail” system that connects bicycle routes and river access points.

The Appleway Bridge at the Idaho state line is a critical juncture of water and wheels. Some boaters have feared – incorrectly – that a planned realignment of the Centennial Trail threatened an informal boat launch.

“If we lose that access point at Stateline, we won’t have any,” Grater said.

Currently, drift boaters are limited to putting their boats in at Stateline and taking them out at a new access point about 3 1/2 miles downstream at the Harvard Bridge.

The Harvard access point – a boulder-lined, graveled ramp with a small parking lot – is a good example of what’s needed, Grater said. It was installed as part of a Superfund mining-waste cleanup.

“That’s all we’re asking for,” Grater said.

Although undeveloped, there has long been similar access near the south end of the Appleway Bridge at the Idaho state line. A Spokane County Conservation District proposal, backed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, would formalize and preserve that access.

“The more people who are invited to use the river, the more they are going to care about it and protect the resource,” said Fish and Wildlife biologist Karin Divens.

The proposal has the support of the Spokane County Department of Parks, Recreation and Golf, which has a separate project to realign the Centennial Trail in that area.

The county project would eliminate a dangerous intersection of the trail and a busy, high-speed freeway access road. The crossing jeopardizes not only bicyclists and pedestrians but motorists who stop for them.

Using a nearly $200,000 state grant, the county parks department plans to move the trail onto nearby land owned by the state Department of Transportation. Then the trail would cross the dirt road leading to the boat launch.

John Bottelli, special projects manager for the county parks department, sees no conflict between users of the trail and of the boat launch.

Although the Conservation District’s project is separate, “we’re both keenly interested in seeing that boat ramp be a success,” Bottelli said.

He plans to put up warning signs and bollards to direct the launch traffic across the trail and keep motorists from thinking the trail is a road.

A bit farther west, the trail shares a road with cars in the county’s Gateway dog park. The realignment project would eliminate that problem as well.

The parks project should have no difficulty getting a free lease of Transportation Department land because there is a clear transportation benefit. Without such a connection, the department would be obliged to charge the market rate.

Establishing a nexus in transportation for the boat launch could be more difficult, but the Conservation District proposes to do so by relieving the Transportation Department of its obligation to restore its damaged shoreline property.

The district would use about $20,000 from the state Fish and Wildlife Department to repair ruts and replant the area, which probably will be used by heavy equipment when Spokane County rebuilds the Appleway Bridge next year.

If the state Parks Department won’t take over long-term management of the site, several user groups are ready to pitch in, said Lindsay Chutas, water resources technician for the conservation district.

Spokesman Al Gilson said the Transportation Department is “generally OK” with both proposed leases.

“It depends on the lease and all the various details,” Gilson said. “Hopefully, it will all work out.”

With separate bicycle and pedestrian lanes, the new bridge will enhance access to the Centennial Trail from the north bank of the river.

Members of the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club flock to the north bank to play in Dead Dog Hole, which club spokesman Miller describes as a “world class” water feature for kayakers.

Downstream, where the city of Spokane Valley is building a new Barker Bridge, recreationalists preserved an important access point by persuading city engineers to move the bridge several feet.

What’s more, river users will be allowed to park their cars on the 72-foot-wide bridge until its extra capacity is needed for traffic.

Moving the bridge left room to keep a narrow lane down to the river on state park land. Bollards near the end of the lane allow kayaks and rafts to pass, but block others.

Grater hopes to remove the bollards so drift boats can get through.

“There may be an opportunity to do that relatively quickly,” said Chris Guitdotti, who oversees state land all along the Spokane River as the new manager of Riverside State Park.

Lining the access lane with boulders to keep vehicles from straying might solve the problem. Guitdotti planned to see whether that could be done as part of the ongoing bridge project.

Guitdotti expressed support for improved access up and down the river on state park land, but noted the state Parks Department has undergone major cuts and has little money for new projects.

“We’re broke,” he said. “It’s pretty bleak. We’re just hoping to have jobs, not develop things at this point.”

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