Spokane Riverkeeper issues Report Card for Hangman Creek: Gives it an “F”
Spokane, Washington – Today, the Spokane Riverkeeper, a local river advocacy organization dedicated to a fishable and swimmable Spokane River, released its latest report card on the condition of Hangman Creek. The report card paints a grim picture of the water quality in Hangman Creek, the second largest tributary of the Spokane River. The report card corroborates the Washington State Department of Ecology’s (Ecology) science that Hangman Creek is one of the most polluted waterways in Washington State. The report gives Hangman Creek low grades for water quality and speaks to the public values lost by institutional and agency neglect of this watershed.
Jule Schultz, the science lead for the Spokane Riverkeeper said, “By Ecology’s own science, and by the conditions we have observed and documented in the field, Hangman Creek is one of the most polluted waterways in Washington State.”
Today, native redband trout only inhabits a small percentage of Hangman Creek and its tributaries due in large part to the issues highlighted in this report. Gone are the gravel, spawning beds and shaded riverbanks that once held salmon, trout, and steelhead.
“In 2016, the creek exceeded temperatures of 80 degrees F. which is deadly to native trout. Due to degraded shorelines, sediment loads are far in excess of what is toxic to trout, and the runoff contributes nutrients that frustrate the efforts to improve water quality in the Spokane River,” said Harvey Morrison, Spokane Falls Trout Unlimited Conservation Chair.
The report card affirms that Hangman Creek needs to have healthy shoreline vegetation. This should be made up of grasses, shrubs and trees and be set back some distance from a stream. Shoreline vegetation acts as a “buffer” between the water in the river and the human land used surrounding that river. Without shoreline vegetation, pollutants run directly into the surface waters and pollute the river, sicken the ecosystems, kill fish, and deprive the public of their entitlement to clean water.
Over the course of one year using conventional farming practices, farmland along Hangman Creek can lose between 14 tons to over 100 tons per acre. That is between 1 and 6.5 dump trucks of top soil coming off of every acre every year. Most, if not all, of this soil migrates to the Creek where it poisons fish, destroys habitat and increases algae blooms in the main stem of the Spokane River.
Without streamside vegetation, small creeks like Hangman Creek and its tributaries bake under a hot summer sun. On average, Hangman Creek is in need of a 70% increase in streamside forest. Riverkeeper research has shown that un-forested reaches of Hangman Creek are nearly 10 (and sometimes 15) degrees F higher in temperature than the forested tributaries. Science tells us that buffers of 77 feet were found to be a minimum to protect from high temperatures.
Nutrients, pesticides and herbicides also runoff into Hangman Creek without stream vegetation buffers. Numerous studies on other waters have found that vegetation buffers between 75-150% effective in intercepting nutrient pollution.
“The problem is solvable through a variety of means. We have adequate funding and voluntary measures, and efforts in place. What we lack is the political will on the part of the Department of Ecology to regulate those who do not respect water quality law,” says Jerry White, Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper.
“Failing to correct these problems is a failure to value and protect clean water and the public trust,” said Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart. “Spokane has always valued our river, and pressing the state to take action is in line with the planning, the vision and the actions of the City of Spokane. We owe it to those downstream, including the Spokane Tribe to do the right thing and clean up Hangman Creek.
In order to begin this process, the Department of Ecology must not look the other way. It can and must use its authority and enforce state and federal water pollution law. These laws make “[i]t is unlawful for any person to throw, drain, run, or otherwise discharge into any of the waters of this state, or to cause, permit or suffer to be thrown, drained, allowed to seep or otherwise discharge into such waters any organic or inorganic matter that shall cause or tend to cause pollution.”
Practically, what that means is that if you own or manage land along a public waterway, you are responsible to keep it in clean and healthy. Livestock should not be allowed to graze in the creek. Shorelines with exposed soils are not legal as they can potentially pollute the public’s water.
The Spokane Riverkeeper has called on the Department of Ecology to begin issuing notice of violations to any land owner or user who knowingly abuses the public’s waters and deprives the public of values like a fishable swimmable river that they are entitled to. So far, Ecology has largely refused to enforce the laws to protect shorelines and shoreline vegetation, and as a result have let the public down in their duties and responsibilities.
Sean Visintainer of Silver Bow Fly Shop put it this way, “What people often forget are the tremendous economic values of clean water and healthy fish. We guide clients on this river all season, and we rely on a robust tourist trade for our business. When we have to reel up because the river is muddy due to Hangman Creek runoff, we have lost an economic and quality of life opportunity. Clean water and healthy trout populations all mean great business opportunities, and a livable community to enjoy.”