Spokane River dying, Sierra Club says - State regulators claim water quality is improving; but group says it's most endangered river in state
Spokane, WA - The Spokane River is dying, says a new report by the local Sierra Club chapter. State regulators, however, say the report is overly pessimistic and the river's water quality is improving.
The report by the Sierra Club's Upper Columbia River Group says the river is stressed by pollution and dammed and drawn down so much that it is drying up in the summer.
"The Spokane River is Washington's most endangered river, and it is dying," said John Osborn, a local physician and the report's author.
"You just have to walk down to the river, look at the dry river beds and Spokane Falls and the human health advisories posted along the river banks to realize we are losing the heart and history of our community," Osborn said.
The health advisories warn people to limit meals of fish caught east of Upriver Dam because of PCBs, a human health threat. Recent studies show the Spokane River is the most PCB-contaminated river in the state.
Drought also has been a major stressor this year. The fourth-driest summer on record impacted the river considerably, Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof said.
"I understand their concern. The river looked very dry this year," Imhof said.
However, the utility's license requires it to maintain a minimum flow of 300 cubic feet per second in the river, he said.
Although the river once was used as an industrial sewer, several projects are now under way to clean it up, said Jani Gilbert of the Washington Department of Ecology.
"We are involved actively in every aspect of these problems. We share concern about the river, but stop short of saying it's dead," Gilbert said.
Ecology hasn't yet secured the money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to clean Spokane River beaches near the Idaho border of mine pollution from the Silver Valley, she said.
However, a consent decree between Ecology, Avista and Kaiser Aluminum outlines a plan to clean up PCBs from behind Upriver Dam, and Congress just approved $500,000 to launch a study of the Spokane Valley/Rathdrum Aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for nearly 500,000 people.
The Sierra Club report says the river has many problems, including:
•Continuing pollution from Idaho mine sediments. The EPA's $369 million Superfund cleanup doesn't address 60 million tons of sediments on the bottom of Lake Coeur d'Alene.
EPA says Idaho must come up with a management plan to keep the heavy metals-tainted sediments stable. Tons of lead, cadmium and zinc from the Silver Valley continue to pour into the lake and river during floods and spring runoff.
•Avista's dam relicensing, which will determine whether water impounded behind Post Falls Dam will be released to the river. Avista's federal application is due in 2005.
•Urban development along the river corridor.
•Over-pumping from the aquifer, which is linked to the river.
•Dissolved oxygen, which if lowered could kill fish and cause algae blooms in the river and in Lake Spokane, which is also called Long Lake.
•Lack of water conservation plans in the towns along the river.
Spokane recently took its first steps toward encouraging conservation through water rates. Starting next year, commercial and residential users will pay the same flat rate.
In the past, big commercial users were rewarded with a lower rate. But high-end users still aren't penalized for wasting water.
The Sierra Club is calling on people to conserve water and get involved with the river issues.
"There is hope for the Spokane River," said the club's
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