We gather at the river: powwows, Pig Out in the Park, concerts, sporting events, even an international exposition. The Spokane River, its waterfalls, and the gorge downriver from Monroe Street are at the center of our regional community, as these features have been since indigenous people camped and fished here from thousands of years ago until 1910 (when Little Falls Dam obstructed salmon from the upper river).
Did you look at the Spokane River over Labor Day weekend? Perhaps you were at Pig Out or walking the Centennial Trail. In places, the river looked more like a creek, a sizable river replaced by rock fields.
You know our river is in trouble just by looking at it. If you need to attach a number, the U.S. Geological Survey monitors river flows at its Monroe Street gauge (operating since 1891, the state’s oldest). On Labor Day, Sept. 5, the river flow dropped below 700 cfs (cubic feet per second).
These low river flows are not an act of God. What you are seeing is a result of poor government policies, uneducated decisions and our indulgences – most notably over-watered lawns, golf courses and parks – which are costing the river its water and the aquatic life that depends on it.
Walk through our neighborhoods and what do you see? Over-watering of lawns, even on occasional rainy days! Small streams of wasted water flow in alleys and gutters. This water is the Spokane River. Because of 200,000 faucets, thousands of sprinkler systems and unregulated use by business and industry, the Spokane River is in trouble. Human hands guided by human brains control the flow … and the Spokane River’s fate.
Individual citizens and families, as well as governments and businesses, can take five actions that will conserve water and help the Spokane River:
1. Reduce outdoor watering (especially over-watering lawn grass)
2. Replace lawn with low-water plants
3. Fix broken or clogged pipes and sprinkler heads
4. Fix leaks in all plumbing fixtures and main water lines
5. Install water-efficient devices (such as low flow toilets and shower heads).
River care is an activity of daily living, year-round. Master Gardeners, garden clubs and the WSU Extension Service can take a leadership role in transitioning gardens and golf courses away from water guzzlers to drought tolerant plantings. We are, after all, in the rain shadow of the Cascades despite the mirage of water abundance that costs the Spokane River its lifeblood.
Our community leaders rallied to bring a world’s fair to Spokane – Expo ’74. We invited the world to the Spokane River. People remember the glory of the waterfalls and river that summer. And now?
Can municipal governments and Avista do more than a summertime insert in our water bill to encourage personal conservation? The city of Spokane has been using Spokane River water as a cash machine, profiting from selling the river water. Thanks to the most recent Spokane City Council, steps may be taken by the city’s water department. How about a regionwide public education effort that directly links our water use to Spokane River summertime flows?
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to clean up mine wastes, PCBs and phosphorus, and to keep raw sewage from overflowing into the Spokane River. To protect these public investments, we need to also protect the amount of water flowing in the Spokane River.
After Labor Day, Avista reopens the gates at Post Falls Dam, releasing more water from Lake Coeur d’Alene to the Spokane River. But pumping the aquifer will continue, including from the massive municipal wells adjacent to the Spokane River, all intercepting water that would otherwise seep upward into the Spokane River through springs.
Think about our river and aquifer as one. The water we all use from the aquifer is water lost to the river for fish and wildlife habitat. Remember water CPR: conserve, protect, reuse. Water is our most important resource – let’s not waste it.
Tom Soeldner is a leader with the H2KNOW Project, a community-based water conservation project.
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