Fall is several weeks away, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at two sparsely leafed trees in Riverfront Park.
The London planetree is known for its heartiness in urban settings, particularly when breathing the soot-saturated air of its namesake during the Industrial Revolution. But the trees also need water, especially during the summer months of intense sunshine. Recent construction in the Gondola Meadow caused some irrigation sprinklers to be turned off, leaving trees directly across from City Hall parched.
Leaves fell, blanketing the sidewalk on Post Street and the Bloomsday runner statues in a display more common in October than August as the trees sought to shed a source of evaporating moisture. City officials signed a contract with the local company Northwest Plant Health Care to douse at-risk trees weekly, even granting the company fire hydrant access to provide the hundreds of gallons of water needed to keep the trees alive.
“It wasn’t caught right away that those trees were on a system that had been turned off,” said Angel Spell, urban forester for the City of Spokane. “You have some trees right next to them that are quite green.”
The city is paying Northwest Plant Health Care $675 a week to water trees in Riverfront Park. The contract calls for 10 weeks of watering to end when the trees normally shed their leaves, but weather conditions may change the agreement length. The city has reimbursed Northwest Plant Health Care for a $200 permit needed to access fire hydrants, bringing the total contract amount to $7,350.
Contractors are watering the trees because existing Riverfront Park staff are working on events, Spell said. The watering cost is being treated as a redevelopment expense paid for with bond money approved by voters because the construction caused the tree damage.
The pair of London planetrees near City Hall weren’t the only ones suffering from a lack of moisture in the park. Observant parkgoers will notice some yellowing at the tops of the honey locust trees on the north side of the Gondola Meadow. Alan Flake pointed out the discoloration Thursday afternoon, taking a break from tending to roughly 40 trees in the park needing emergency watering, some of which was provided by the 500-gallon tanks on the back of his company rig.
“That’s a clear sign of stress,” said Flake, a ponytailed arborist spray technician who’s spent the past 30-plus years caring for trees in Spokane.
Flake said the damage to the London planetrees could result in some limb loss, but both he and Spell believed they would return with full blooms next spring, as long as the trees continue to receive regular watering.
Northwest Plant Health Care also has been contracted to provide tree pruning services as the park undergoes its $64 million, multiyear transformation funded by a voter-approved bond measure in 2014. Flake said all trees in the park battled overcrowding caused by overzealous planting in the park’s construction 42 years ago.
“They overplanted it deliberately,” he said. “They expected to lose trees.”
But in the decades since, the city has made the preservation of trees in the park a priority, Flake said. That continues during park construction, as the city has fenced off and laid down wood chips to prevent root damage around the bases of trees where heavy equipment is being used to begin work on the park’s new features.
“Wood chips do a couple things for the tree,” Spell said. “They hold moisture for the trees. They also reduce soil compaction.”
Flake said it was unlikely any damage to the trees occurred because of digging or root damage. Most of the work is occurring near the end of where the trees’ root system ends, he said.
“Out here, it’s like the tree’s saying, ‘I stubbed my toe,’ ” Flake said, as he moved closer to the base of one of the London planetrees. “Up here, you’re hacking the shoulder off.”
Workers have been spraying trees outside of functioning irrigation systems for the past six weeks, and will continue throughout construction at the park. The park redevelopment is scheduled to take place in stages through 2020.
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