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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Workshop to spell out river issues

Fog rises off the Spokane River in Spokane on Wednesday  as the last colors of fall foliage frame a photographer at dawn. 
 (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

The next few months will help decide the fate, flow and purity of the Spokane River for generations to come.

Everything from dam management plans to dishwasher soap bans and ending raw sewage spills are issues reaching decision points. Several environmental and legal groups from across the region are hosting a free conference Saturday in Spokane in hopes of helping residents sort out these often-confusing topics.

“This is definitely a pivotal moment,” said one of the organizers, Rachael Paschal Osborn, a Spokane attorney with the Columbia Institute for Water Policy. “What we hear from folks is, ‘I really care about the river, but it’s so complicated.’ Admittedly, it can be a little overwhelming. What we’re trying to do is lay it all out.”

Saturday’s forum will offer bite-size updates of all the changes taking place surrounding the river. Presenters will include environmentalists, as well as experts from state and tribal agencies.

“There’s a lot of issues on the table and a lot of opportunity for the public to participate,” said Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney and organizer with the Spokane-based Center for Justice. “A lot of these regulatory processes are incredibly daunting. Without some background, it’s really difficult to ask an average citizen to come and meaningfully participate. It’s very easy to get lost in the jargon.”

With that in mind, Eichstaedt and Osborn offered an ABC primer of current issues facing the river:

A stands for adjudication. That’s the big word for divvying up legal rights to water in the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, which feeds the river. Idaho recently began this process, prompting concern in Washington over a water grab. The state of Washington is now preparing its own adjudication process. In spring, a massive, multimillion-dollar study of the aquifer is also expected to be unveiled.

CSO is combined sewer overflow. This is what happens when storms overwhelm Spokane’s sewer system, prompting the release of millions of gallons of raw sewage at a time into the Spokane River. The sewage is not only disgusting and a health hazard, it also contributes to low oxygen levels in the river. The city has until 2017 to fix the problem, but changes are already under way, prompted in part by threats of a lawsuit from the Sierra Club.

D is the dead zone. This is what happens at the bottom of Long Lake and the Spokane Arm of Lake Roosevelt when fertilizer-laden sediments and oxygen-depleted water flows into the reservoir. The Spokane Tribe, which helps manage the Spokane Arm and whose members continue to eat traditional fish-rich diets, is taking an active interest in the cleanup of the river, said Brian Crossley, the tribe’s water and fish program manager. “If they don’t do anything upstream, we’re left with the bottom of the bucket. … The tribe needs those waters to sustain itself.” A state plan is now being developed to boost oxygen levels in the water.

FERC is Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of issuing the license for operating dams on the Spokane River. The license is up for renewal and several key steps in the process are happening in the next three months. In early December, a trial-like hearing will be held in Spokane to examine a dispute between the dam operator, Avista Utilities, and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. Later that month, the agency is expected to issue a draft report of how the new licensing plan will impact the environment. The public will then have a chance to weigh in on the issue before a final license is granted – the next license will govern dam management and lake levels for the next 30 to 50 years.

IPNF is the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, which is finalizing its long-term plan for managing the forests that contain the headwaters of the Spokane River.

P stands for the element phosphorus, which is a leading cause behind the river’s low levels of oxygen. Phosphorus comes from a variety of sources, including sewage, fertilizer and soap. Beginning in July 2008, Spokane will become one of the first cities in the nation to ban phosphorus-rich dishwasher detergent.

PCB is polychlorinated biphenyl, a family of toxic chemicals that persist in river sediments, thanks to earlier use by industry. The chemical builds up in the tissues of fish and is passed on to humans, where it causes everything from liver problems to cancer. Washington has recently begun cleaning up PCB-laden sediment behind Upriver Dam, but more work is required to stop the continuing inflow of new PCBs. The state is required to meet stringent water quality standards set by the Spokane Tribe downstream (just as upstream Idaho must ensure its water in the Spokane River meets Washington’s standards).

PDBE is polybrominated diphenyl ether, another class of dangerous chemicals, commonly found in flame retardants. A recent study showed the Spokane River had the state’s highest levels. The Department of Ecology is hoping to begin work this winter to track the source of these substances.

Q stands for quality and quantity. Even environmentalists agree the river water’s purity has improved dramatically in recent decades, but new fights are emerging over quantity issues, especially as booming growth creates increasing demand for water (see entry above for A).

S stands for shoreline management plans, which are currently being developed by both the city and county of Spokane. The plans are meant to control growth along state waterways.

W stands for white water. Boaters are now working on a project for a white-water park near downtown Spokane.

Apart from some of the peculiar vocabulary, most of the issues are fairly easy to understand, Eichstaedt said. “The decisions are going to set the course of the river for a long time to come.”