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Returning farmland to a state of nature

Amanda Parrish, a Watershed Program director with the Lands Council, carries water from Coulee Creek to plants near the creek on May 11. The Lands Council is planting willows and other vegetation along the creek, aiming to improve the health of the entire watershed. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Amanda Parrish, a Watershed Program director with the Lands Council, carries water from Coulee Creek to plants near the creek on May 11. The Lands Council is planting willows and other vegetation along the creek, aiming to improve the health of the entire watershed. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Lands Council workers, student volunteers and others join forces to help restore Coulee, Deep creek watersheds

Amanda Parrish and Joe Cannon have been tramping across acres of stream bank this spring planting trees and shrubs in a major watershed restoration along Coulee and Deep creeks in northwest Spokane County.

The two workers for the Lands Council have been joined by volunteers in an ambitious effort to plant 2,500 native species on four private parcels.

Willows, pines, alder, mountain ash, dogwood, cottonwood, rose and quaking aspen are now taking hold along the streams. When they mature, they will provide shade and improve the environmental health of the two creeks.

But they’ve had to fight off the elements, including a two-week dry spell earlier this month. To keep the plants alive, workers have been carrying water by hand to the transplants.

“This is a tough area to do this work,” Cannon said. “It dries out pretty quickly.”

The two said they are committed to keeping an eye on the plants to make sure they survive the summer and winter.

One of the main challenges is to help the plants overcome the choking effect of invasive canary reed grass, which carpets both sides of the creeks. Canary reed grass is a common problem along streams in the region.

Workers must peel back the matted roots of the grass to create a planting spot, and they will have to return to make sure the grass doesn’t overtake their starts.

An organic repellent is being applied to discourage browsing by deer and elk.

“The maintenance of the initial planting is crucial,” Parrish said.

The work stems from years of study and preparation.

The state about eight years ago started a program of watershed assessments and planning, including Coulee and Deep creeks. The work brought together government officials, tribes, landowners and educators to develop plans for each of the streams in a watershed resource inventory area.

Last year, the Lands Council won a $22,000 state grant for the restoration effort on Coulee and Deep creeks.

Parrish and Cannon contacted landowners in the area and explained their work. Four owners were chosen out of eight who wanted to participate, Parrish said.

Both streams have long stretches where farming eliminated natural shrubbery and trees. But woody plants are a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem, the restoration workers said.

Trees and tall shrubs provide shade that cools the water. They also stabilize the banks and reduce sedimentation of the creek bed. The cover attracts beavers, which build structures that are helpful to the habitat. Eventually the creeks will develop deeper pools and possibly new wetlands as a result.

The changes are likely to bring back fish, insects and invertebrates to the healthier environment.

Reducing sediment will help with what has been a major phosphorus pollution problem on the Spokane River, where the creeks drain, Parrish and Cannon said. The problem has cost the region hundreds of millions of dollars for pollution controls.

The two lamented a private road culvert on Coulee Creek that creates a small waterfall on the downstream side and prevents fish migration.

They said they plan to continue to monitor the project as part of a wider effort to learn what works and what does not.

Plants for the project were purchased from the Spokane County Conservation District and Plants of the Wild in Tekoa, Wash.

Among the volunteers working on the project are students from Spokane Community College’s water resources program and Mead High School.



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