A section of illegally excavated Spokane River near Post Falls must be returned to its natural state, according to a recent order by the Idaho Department of Lands.
Spokane businessman Thomas Hamilton has until July 23 to submit a plan for refilling the 150-foot channel he had dug for a boat slip at his riverfront home, according to a letter sent to Hamilton last week.
The Mother’s Day weekend excavation project muddied the Spokane River and prompted a flood of complaints from downstream homeowners. Federal, state and county officials have been working since to devise a fix that won’t further degrade the river and jeopardize trout spawning habitat.
The Department of Lands order includes no penalties or fines, but Hamilton faces additional sanctions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violating the Clean Water Act, as well as possible criminal charges from Kootenai County. Neither the county nor the federal government has yet decided how to resolve the case.
Hamilton called the charges against him “ridiculous” and “completely out of proportion” and has hired a team of independent scientists to prove that leaving the site alone is the best bet for the river. He is not able to park a boat in the channel because the Army Corps of Engineers has required that a floating silt curtain block the inlet.
“I love the environment. I love the water. I do not believe I did one single solitary thing that affected the environment adversely,” Hamilton said. “I believe I improved on the environment.”
The alternative to the dredged boat slip would have been a dock jutting out into the public waterway, Hamilton explained. “Who wants that sticking out there?”
Hamilton had hoped to create a place to park his boat by dredging a natural inlet on his 10-acre property. The inlet had filled with silt and was not deep enough for a boat.
The dredging began shortly after dawn on Saturday, May 8. When government officials arrived at the site two days later, they discovered about 400 cubic yards of dirt had been removed from the bottom and bank of the river. Extensive permits are required for such a project.
Although Hamilton and his architect, Spokane City Councilman Al French, had filed permit applications with three different government agencies, none had yet been approved, according to officials. And only two days before work began, the two had been warned not to proceed.
“The weekend came and they did it anyway,” said Mike Denney, area supervisor with the Department of Lands, in an earlier interview. “It was very clear he didn’t have permission.”
The work took place over the weekend not to evade the law, Hamilton said, but because it was the last possible time to complete the project before the dam was closed on the Spokane River. The dam closure would have submerged the inlet and delayed the work for another year. Hamilton said he already has two years of time invested in applying for the permits and conducting the necessary soil and water tests.
“The only thing I had any knowledge of not being issued was a site disturbance permit,” from Kootenai County, Hamilton said.
The excavation sent silt downstream. Some homeowners across the river were outraged and phoned in complaints to various government agencies. The Army Corps of Engineers required Hamilton to install a floating silt barrier in the river and straw bales on the bank.
Hamilton said the amount of silt was negligible. “The trunk of my car would hold more dirt than went downstream,” he said.
The silt barriers have actually stirred up more muck than the digging, Hamilton said. Whenever a boat passes the property, its wake causes the floating curtain to sway and sweep up mud from the bottom. Hamilton said he has aerial photographs proving water surrounding the site is muddier now than before the installation of the barriers.
“The silt fence has generated a great deal of mud and – new word for me – turbidity,” Hamilton said. “It’s run away all the water life. There were frogs and turtles and fish. They’re not there now.”
Hamilton said his neighbors across the river continue to suspect him of violating laws whenever he does work on the property. “I was turned in twice yesterday again to the DEQ,” he said.
The Department of Lands now is demanding that Hamilton fill the dredged channel with clean fill. It must be placed atop at least a foot of sand covering a fabric barrier. The barrier is meant to protect the seal between the riverbed and the nearby groundwater aquifer. The surrounding land also must be replanted under the direction of a licensed landscape architect during the winter, after the river level falls.
Apart from spelling out what needs to be corrected, the two-page letter also informed Hamilton that the unpermitted excavation degraded public trust land “solely to enhance your upland property.”
Charla Bendele, whose family owns a house across the river from Hamilton, is happy to learn the site will be restored, but was disappointed no fines were levied. She said the excavation destroyed wildlife habitat. “They’d fine somebody like me – who doesn’t have much money – if I did something like that,” she said.
Assistant Kootenai County Prosecutor Rudy Verschoor said the county is considering filing criminal charges, but a decision will not be made until next week. The Army Corps of Engineers also is working on a response.
Hamilton said he will do what the agencies require, but he continues to insist that he did nothing wrong. The boat slip project has been nothing but trouble, he added. To date, he’s spent more than $50,000 on the application process, the construction and the team of scientists hired to defend the work. He expects the project’s total price will eventually top $100,000, and he still might end up with nothing but a swampy inlet too shallow for his boat.
“I wish I hadn’t done anything. It would have been a whole lot simpler,” he said.
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