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Preserving Spokane River is group effort

Sun., June 3, 2012

The Spokane River is a standout in the vast experience of Peter Grubb, who founded ROW Adventures 33 years ago. That’s a story in itself, considering Grubb’s been guiding rafters for 35 years on many of the world’s most popular streams. His holiday cards often feature his family in Idaho’s River of No Return Wilderness, the Amazon Basin or riding camels.

“I always tell people I’ve never heard of a higher quality urban whitewater experience with such a range of amenities,” he said, noting the river has expert-rated stretches of rapids, play waves for kayakers, easy water for families, a paved trail along its shores – and good fishing for native rainbow trout.

The setting of the Bowl and Pitcher, with its gigantic basalt formations, is one of the most spectacular

stretches plied by rafting groups, he said.

“On the other hand, we do “Happy Hour Moonlight Trips” that go through easier water in the soft light of evening where it’s so quiet we’re amazed at the wildlife we see: great blue herons, bald eagles, ospreys, beavers, deer, and coyotes. It’s all here, in the city.”

Of course, the Spokane River reaches far beyond the interests of river rafters.

Features of the river – including the native redband trout and even the city waterfalls – survive among an ever-increasing human population because some people value them.

Fed by Idaho waters in the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe river drainages, the Spokane River begins at Lake Coeur d’Alene and runs 112 miles, through six Avista Utilities hydropower projects, to the Columbia River near Fort Spokane.

Current environmental efforts focus on Spokane County sewage treatment, reducing phosphorus, cleaning up mine waste on river beaches and protecting the aquifer that feeds cool water into the river.

Broader efforts to restore watershed forests are similarly critical to overall water temperature, sustained flows and water quality for the population and fish that depend on it.

The Sierra Club’s Upper Columbia Group and Center for Environmental Law & Policy were instrumental in the 2009 settlement with Avista assuring the Spokane Falls flow 24/7 year-round – ending a century of competing interests that sometimes dewatered the falls during summer.

Washington departments of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife enforce shoreline and hydraulic laws to protect the river.

Plans to build boat docks at the Coyote Rock development recently were scuttled by legal action in part because of impacts docks could have on redband trout by creating habitat for predators such as smallmouth bass.

The proposed whitewater paddling park near High Bridge Park has been stalled by concerns that boulders cemented into the river could affect hydraulics and fish passage to spawning areas.

The Spokane Riverkeeper project through the Center for Justice is providing daily oversight on river issues, often trying to head off problems before they start.

“We’re continuing to look at toxics,” said Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich. “PCBs and other toxics are an issue that involves the whole region.

“The original focus was on manufacturing, but we’re finding our laws don’t reach to other countries and it’s not illegal to import tires, cosmetics and all sorts of stuff with toxics that find their way into our river.”

Stormwater runoff also is a regional issue involving municipalities throughout the Spokane River drainage.

“We’re trying to navigate with all the river stakeholders on how to manage runoff in a cost-effective way,” he said.

“Spokane has aging infrastructure and outdated technology handling stormwater and no one has the money to replumb the south side of the city. But we need to figure out how to prevent raw sewage from overflowing into the river every time we get more than a quarter inch of rain.”

Angler interest is picking up since Friday, when the fishing season reopened on the Spokane River through the city following the spawning period break. Water is high, but anglers in drift boats can reach trout-holding areas.

Meantime, regional utilities managers have a year-round interest in the redbands.

Tim Vore, Avista’s Spokane River fisheries specialist, listed numerous ways the company’s hydropower projects are linked to fisheries through federal requirements.

• Spring spawning flows must be maintained in an optimum range to protect wild redband trout spawning and emergence. “The fish have spawned and the young fish should be emerging from the gravels this week,” Vore said.

• Flow down-ramping is controlled at Post Falls Dam to avoid sudden changes during critical periods to prevent stranding fish.

• Flow and temperature monitoring will continue this summer in the third year of a five-year project to assess minimum flows needed for protecting wild trout.

• Sterile hatchery trout – about 15,000 catchable-size rainbows a year – are stocked in the Nine Mile Falls Reservoir and in the Riverfront Park area to provide recreation without impacting the wild fish.

“It’s part of our wonderful urban environment to have a place where city kids can go downtown and catch fish,” Vore said.

• Redband population surveys involve partnering with the state Fish and Wildlife Department to electro-shock, tag and release trout in fall surveys to monitor fish movements and survival.

“All of Avista’s programs work cooperatively with other agencies and groups,” Vore said. “The effort must continue over a range of time because the river flows can change dramatically from year to year.”

A trout-spawning habitat assessment Avista funded in 2009-2010 found 58 gravel patches that are potential wild-trout spawning areas in roughly 10 miles of free-flowing river downstream from Spokane Falls.

“But that’s not all consistently available to fish,” Vore said. “This year we’re having a fairly normal runoff. Last year the river was flowing with high water well into July. Around 2001, we had very low water.”

Some river users volunteer time and money to preserving river features that that could easily be flushed away.

Trout Unlimited has partnered with Avista and other groups to post signs along the river, raising awareness for protecting the wild trout.

ROW Adventures and other river-oriented businesses have a deeper interest than merely floating clients down the surface of the river.

“We contribute fundraising trips to the Riverkeeper and other groups because they all play an important role in keeping the river the wonderful place it is,” Grubb said.

“The worst thing for a river is to be taken for granted by the people who live around it.”

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