The Spokane Riverkeeper, along with the North Sound Baykeeper, and others floated Hangman Creek from Tensed, Idaho to Kentuck Trails Road in Washington, Coeur d’Alene on Earth Day Weekend 2017. Along the way we encountered great beauty, incredible restoration efforts, and vast pollution problems.
Hangman Creek is the most polluted stream/river in Washington State in terms of almost every metric of nonpoint source pollution (runoff). High nutrients, temperatures, sediments, and low dissolved oxygen create an environment that no trout can survive in (despite once thriving there). However, as we learned, it doesn’t need to be this way.
Our journey started in the fields above Tensed, Idaho where the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is restoring Hangman Creek. Their equation, stream+beaver+aspen=trout, may seem simple, but it is doing wonders for the Creek. Getting a stream back means restoring ground water levels. To do this they are installing no-till farming techniques and streamside vegetation. This allows surface water to soak into the ground where it is stored, cleaned, and cooled, discharging into the Creek when fish need it most. Beavers are attracted to the streamside vegetation and build dams, which further restore groundwater levels and meander the stream. It takes surprisingly little area along the stream to accomplish this. The Tribe has 100 foot buffer width, but much of that is grass (see photo).
After the tour we hopped in our boats at the highway 95 bridge over Hangman Creek. The Creek here was running more or less clear. On our way downstream we encountered the reason why Hangman Creek runs muddy for much of the year. Freshly tilled fields spewed sediment from banks stripped bare of vegetation. Water flowed over these fields without time to soak into the ground. The bare banks offered no filtration for the pollutants that saturated the land (we had crop dusters buzzing us throughout the day). Further downstream we found livestock with direct access to the shoreline, turning the creek bank into a muddy mess and grazing what little streamside vegetation remained. In summer the exposed creek will not have the ground water it needs to feed it and its waters will be directly exposed to the summer sun, heating the stream to temperatures much too high for native trout.
Downstream, as we entered the “canyon” section of Hangman Creek below the town of Waverly the forest returned, with stands of cottonwood and ponderosa pine lining its banks. The tall basalt columns formed millions of years ago towered above us. Wildlife popped out of the vegetation as dusk fell, with turkeys calling and whitetail deer bounding away. The streamside forest offered wildlife habitat as well as water quality protection. The solution is clear- returning vegetation to the banks of all streams will clean up the dirty water that pollutes Hangman Creek and other waters in the area.