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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Our View: River cleanup legislation stresses accountability

It’s still going to take time and money to clean up the Spokane River, but the process is more promising now, thanks to a bill signed into law last Monday by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The measure will probably cause anxiety among some water-quality activists because it extends the deadline in which the process must take place. In fact, however, the legislation validates the 20-year time frame that was on the minds of an impressive array of local stakeholders – including Indian tribes, commercial and municipal wastewater dischargers and state regulators – as they spent two years working out a previous agreement. Unfortunately, that came to a halt when it was realized that state law allowed them only 10 years to reach compliance.

Before that plan was sidetracked, the intention was to have the technology – the expensive part of the strategy – done within the first 10 years anyway. (For the record, one of the private dischargers affected is the Inland Empire Paper Co., which, like The Spokesman-Review, is owned by the Cowles Co.)

But even with state-of-the-art technology, the task of getting oxygen-robbing nutrients down to a pristine level acceptable under the federal Clean Water Act needs something more. About half the phosphates and other contaminants that contribute to troublesome algae blooms at Long Lake come not from sewage treatment plants and paper mills, but from nonpoint sources. Such sources include failed septic tanks, fertilizer runoff from golf courses and residential lawns, agricultural wastes that flow down Latah Creek and plain old natural sediments. Nonpoint sources are many and dispersed and difficult to address.

Under the new legislation, the various dischargers, including the city of Spokane, have to do the spendy things in 10 years, but they and others who have a role to play will have more time and flexibility to implement difficult strategies for controlling nonpoint sources. Along the way, they’ll have to keep the state Department of Ecology satisfied that they’re on top of their responsibilities.

Avista Utilities, a new participant, doesn’t discharge wastewater into the river, but it does own the dam that impounds the river as Long Lake, creating the conditions that are conducive to algae growth, which is the main problem. Because the river cleanup effort is now linked to Avista’s dam relicensing, the utility will have a major role in removing nutrients the dischargers can’t get at with their new equipment.

No one has been let off the hook under the new legislation, nor should they be. But the law has inserted a measure of pragmatism that wasn’t there before, making a successful outcome more likely.

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