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

Spokane Riverkeeper urges conservation as water flows fall

Kayakers paddle slowly down the Little Spokane River where it flows along State Route 291 and near where it flows into the Spokane River in this July 2021 photo. River flows that year were among their lowest over the past five years, according to United States Geological Survey data, and flows this year are approaching those levels after the river was roaring from heavy snowmelt and rain earlier this spring.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The organization tasked with protecting the Spokane River is urging city residents to reduce their water use, including watering lawns and plants just twice per week, during the final weeks of summer as flows plunge to droughtlike levels.

“We had all this water. We had this great snowpack,” said Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, on Friday. “We were thrilled about that. Normally we would see that carry over into August and September.”

Instead, monitoring by the United States Geological Survey showed river flows falling to below 1,000 cubic feet per second last week below the Monroe Street dam. Under a law passed by the Spokane City Council earlier this year, such a level could trigger an emergency declaration as early as next year from City Hall that would limit water use within city limits.

That law doesn’t take effect until June 1, and will run through Oct. 1 of each year. But White said the frequency of such low flows in recent years in the river means restrictions in future years are all but certain under that law.

“That prodded me on. I wanted to say, let’s start getting comfortable with these water conservation measures,” White said.

Under that law, if a majority of the council or the mayor declares a drought emergency, city residents would be prohibited from watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., would only be able to water twice per week, limit watering to two hours per day and be prohibited from using water to wash off patios, sidewalks, driveways and decks.

City government is still trying to determine a system for informing water users of drought restrictions, said City Council President Breean Beggs. He said such a system could look similar to what is used by the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency to alert residents of hazardous air quality conditions.

Beggs also noted the law says a drought can be declared if the water level “is predicted to fall” below the 1,000 cubic feet per second mark.

“We’re trying to figure out who’s making those predictions,” Beggs said.

Water levels first dropped below 1,000 cubic feet per second Aug. 18 at the monitoring location between Peaceful Valley and the Sandifur Bridge. That’s after reaching a height of 25,200 cubic feet per second on June 18, in the midst of a cool, wet spring that followed a relatively healthy winter for snowpack.

Measurements are typically at their highest in May and June, when runoff from the mountains and rain swell the river. They then fall throughout the dry summer months. The lowest level recorded in the past several years was in August 2018, when the flow was recorded at just 713 cubic feet per second twice in one week.

Beggs said even without an emergency declaration from City Hall, he supported water users following conservation rules as summer draws to a close. He cited the release last week of 146 chinook salmon into the Spokane River at Sandifur Bridge, an effort intended to bring the fish back after hydroelectric dam construction closed off the spawning grounds prized by local Indigenous tribes, as a reason to save water.

“They need the flow,” Beggs said.

The request to follow the watering restrictions doesn’t have any legal teeth, White admitted. Residents will not be punished for not following the rules this year, and the ordinance faced opposition at City Hall because of its potential punitive nature, with some lawmakers and Mayor Nadine Woodward stating a preference for incentivizing lower water use, rather than penalizing residents. The law, as approved, lists no specific penalties for violations.

White likened his group’s notification to a traffic light changing from green to yellow.

“When we ask for these measures, we’re simply asking to help the river out,” White said.