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Reduce river litter, reduce poverty, says environmental nonprofit leader

UPDATED: Thu., April 29, 2021

Strollers on the Riverfront Park footbridge had sunny skies March 16 to experience the power of the Upper Falls of the Spokane River, starting to rage with early spring runoff.   (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Strollers on the Riverfront Park footbridge had sunny skies March 16 to experience the power of the Upper Falls of the Spokane River, starting to rage with early spring runoff.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

To clean the Spokane River, start by addressing poverty, housing shortages and opioid addiction.

That was the leader of Spokane Riverkeeper’s message to the Spokane City Council on Thursday.

“Everything you can do to address poverty is addressing river issues. It really is. Healthy, happy people who are indoors simply don’t produce this kind of garbage that ends up on our riverbanks,” said Jerry White, Jr., executive director of Spokane Riverkeeper.

The nonprofit and its multiple partners and volunteers have dragged thousands of pounds of trash from the Spokane River and its banks in recent years.

Waste has piled up as the river sees increased recreational use and its banks continue to be a frequent camping spot for people experiencing homelessness.

White pointed to “the crisis we’ve had in housing, with the crisis we’ve had in COVID, and frankly a society that doesn’t always provide a social safety network that is adequate” that leads to people finding themselves without a home.

The homeless aren’t wholly responsible for trash in the river, as White noted unprecedented recreational use as the coronavirus pandemic set in last year.

“We are not interested in scapegoating the most vulnerable in our society,” White said.

Instead, White called for a coordinated, centralized approach to the cleanup efforts and a purposeful response to systemic issues like poverty.

Dating to 2016, Spokane Riverkeeper has conducted dozens of litter cleanups with hundreds of volunteers.

In 2020 , it held 41 cleanup events with 473 volunteers that collected 11,970 pounds of garbage. It’s already collected 10,000 pounds this year, according to White.

“It really is a problem that continues to grow,” White said.

Spokane Riverkeeper hosts shoreline cleanups, partners with other groups like the city of Spokane’s code enforcement and Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, and conducts educational outreach to recreational river users.

In certain garbage hot spots, White said, Spokane Riverkeeper works with the city’s code enforcement department. Code enforcement employees collect what they can from the shore, while Riverkeeper employees grab the rest by boat.

Jason Ruffing, a city code enforcement supervisor, credited the partnership for allowing cleanup to happen in the river’s hard-to-reach areas.

“A lot of them are very remote. They require extensive hiking down steep slopes through hand-carved paths that aren’t really meant to be walked on very often,” Ruffing said.

And that’s just on the way down.

“The prospect of carrying that garbage back up those slopes – it can be very dangerous for the team,” Ruffing said.

City Council members asked White what more is needed to support the cleanup efforts.

White suggested a go-to person in city government to coordinate cleanups. He also suggested training for cleanup teams, as the safety issues they encounter “are real,” White said.

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