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How the City of Spokane is Letting Its River Down

2011 Water Billboard

Mayoral water war on display. (Photo: Spokesman Review) Check out www.H2KNOW.info for a different kind of message regarding Spokane’s water.

It’s hard to forget the water wars of 2011 – the mayoral water wars that is.  Anonymous billboards went up around town questioning why – with 10 trillion gallons of water in the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer – the City of Spokane would raise water rates to induce conservation.  A mayor and a city council member lost their seats, due in part to this highly misleading message.

Abundant groundwater notwithstanding, Mother Nature, combined with a City revenue structure that incentivizes water sales, have created a one-two punch for Spokane’s “most precious resource.”   The Spokane River is flowing at near-record lows.  It doesn’t have to be this way . . . but somebody in the City of Spokane needs to speak up.

Spokane River - Sandifur Bridge - 630 cfs - 8-8-15

Spokane River flowing at 630 cfs at the Westlink Pedestrian Bridge on August 8, 2015.

The Spokane River is directly fed by the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer, so groundwater pumping by all of the municipalities in this region is causing extreme low flows.  For the last few days, the River has been dropping into the 550 cfs range.  That’s 300 cfs below the minimum flow that the Department of Ecology adopted last February, and less than half of what the flow has been this time of year for the last few years (and a third of what it was historically).  The lowest flow on record is around 450 cfs, and it seems possible that a new record may be in the offing if people don’t put the brakes on their water usage.

As the City’s Water System Plan states (and common sense tells us), summer is the season of high water use.  From October to April, monthly water demand averages 31 to 44 million gallons per day (mgd).  May through September, the average jumps to between 64 and 114 mgd.  But this year, 2015, July usage was a whopping 123 mgd.   No wonder the Spokane River is suffering.

The City of Spokane has failed the Spokane River by stepping back from reasonable water conservation planning and implementation.

  • Arizona Block Rate Chart

    Examples of inclining block rate structures in Arizona. When a higher tier kicks in sooner and goes higher, people begin to conserve. Spokane’s rate structure would fall near the bottom of this graph.

    Water rates.   A “conservation rate structure” is the most effective way to get water customers to pay attention to and cut back on their water use.  The pocket book speaks.  The basic idea – the more you use the higher your rate – creates an incentive to drop your water usage into a lower/cheaper tier.  But Spokane’s rates make very minor distinctions for higher usage – and are ineffective in encouraging Spokane citizens to turn the outdoor spigot and sprinklers down (or off).

    For example, Spokane residential customers can use “6 units” of water (about 4,500 gallons) for 28 cents/unit or $1.71.  The next “4 units” (about 3,000) gallons costs 60 cents/unit or a total of $2.41.  The next jump is to 81 cents per unit.  A household can use 15,000 gallons per month (500 gallons per day) – a large amount – for just $12 per month.  These are not conservation-inducing water rates.

  • Conservation Goals.  Washington law requires water purveyors to adopt water conservation goals.  The City’s goal is to reduce water usage by 2% each year.  It is a modest goal, but the City can’t seem to meet it (in part because the City’s water rates are so low).  In 2014, the City’s summer season water usage actually exceeded the conservation goal by 13% (goal was 8.5 billion gallons, actual use was 9.6 billion gallons).  According to the City’s 2014 Drinking Water Report, the reason the City did not meet its goals was usage by commercial/industrial users.   Clearly, this is an area where higher water rates could have a meaningful impact.
  • Water Leakage.   The City is losing a lot of water out of its “World Water II era” water mains.  The Drinking Water Report cites 17.8% leakage in 2014.   The state’s water efficiency law, adopted in 2003, requires a cities to control water leakage to a rate of 10% or less.  Twelve years and counting, many wonder when Spokane will get around to compliance.
  • Water Billing Practices.   If you are a Spokane utility customer you get a bill every month.  And it tells you how much water you’ve used.  But the City only checks your meter every 60 days or so.  So, by the time you get a bill  with actual data, it is really too late to save much water.   (Hint:  read your own meter to monitor your usage and set personal conservation goals.)
  • Water Conservation Table - Spokane WSP (draft Dec. 2014) (2)

    Spokane Water Conservation Measures (City Water System Plan, draft Dec. 2014)

    City Conservation Plan.   The City, by law, must adopt a water conservation plan every six years.   The latest plan, a December 2014 draft, identifies 19 measures (table at right).  These include water audits, low flow appliance rebates, education, and etc.  Some measures are not being implemented and some don’t even make sense.

Clearly, with record usage this year, these measures are not working, and  as mentioned, the City’s water rate system is not effective.  The City’s “Slow the Flow” campaign is virtually invisible. (And really, does anyone change their water habits based on a 3×8 inch insert in their utility bill?)

Non-profit groups Sierra Club Upper Columbia River Group and the Center for Environmental Law & Policy have taken leadership to encourage residents of Spokane to cut their water usage.   The H2KNOW campaign has billboards up and is getting media coverage.   Visit the H2KNOW.info website and Facebook page and see if you can translate a few tips on water reduction into your daily life.


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Citizen Action Motivates Spokane PCB Suit Against Monsanto

Caution Label PCBsOn July 31, 2015 the City of Spokane filed a legal complaint against mega-chemical manufacturer Monsanto and associated corporations, claiming the chemical manufacturing giant has engaged in nuisance, negligence, and product liability.  The complaint describes the destructive nature of PCB pollution, and alleges Monsanto knew decades ago that it was manufacturing and distributing a chemical that was not fit for use, the dangers of which it failed to provide notice to its customers.

The complaint, along with a press release circulated by the City’s Dallas, TX attorneys, explains why the City felt the need to file this lawsuit:   “According to a recent federal case, Spokane will become subject to a PCB TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load, which is a maximum amount of pollutant that a body of water such as the Spokane River can receive while still meeting water quality standards.”

That federal case is Sierra Club & CELP v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  On March 16, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled that EPA had abused its discretion in failing to require a PCB clean-up plan for the Spokane River, and ordered EPA to file with the court by July 14 a schedule for adopting that plan.  For more info, see our previous post:  Federal Court Rules: Evict Fox from Chicken Coop.

The City is correct.  The court-mandated PCB TMDL will establish waste load allocations that will be translated into limits on the amount of PCBs the City can discharge into the Spokane River via its treatment plant, stormwater system, and Combined-Sewer Overflow (CSO) system.

Spokane is one among several polluters who will be required to substantially upgrade treatment facilities to remove PCBs from effluent before it is discharged to the Spokane River, thanks to the Sierra Club/CELP legal action.  Other affected polluters include the new Spokane County treatment plant, Liberty Lake Water & Sewer,  Kaiser Aluminum, and Inland Empire Paper.

The City’s lawsuit is one of four such suits to be filed against Monsanto in the last few months.  Other municipal plaintiffs seeking damages for harm to the environment include San Jose, CA, San Diego, CA, and the Port of San Diego.

There have been winners and losers so far in the Monsanto PCB liability lottery, including reported settlements for PCB dumping in South Wales, England, and for personal injuries to former employees and others harmed by Monsanto’s Anniston, Alabama manufacturing facility.  However, last month a jury returned a verdict in Monsanto’s favor in a St. Louis, Missouri lawsuit brought by individual’s claiming harm from PCB exposure.

In March 2015, the newsblog ThinkProgress, reporting on San Diego’s lawsuit, described the difficulties of suing companies for historic pollution practices.   Sadly, it’s much harder to prove liability when the “scene of the crime” is a public resource like a river or a bay.

Suing over historic pollution is not a new concept for the Spokane watershed, however, given our history with massive silver and lead mining pollution in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, and the Midnite Mine uranium Superfund site on the Spokane Indian Reservation, not to mention Teck Cominco’s discharge of 9 million tons of toxic slag into the Lake Roosevelt.

Usually it is Native American Tribes and conservation groups engaged in the battles to clean up public resources like the Spokane River.   Welcome to the club, City of Spokane.


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Spokane River flows drop nearly 2,000 cfs in a single day

The gates have closed at Post Falls dam to ensure that Lake Coeur d’Alene water levels are maintained for boaters.

Meanwhile, flows have dropped nearly 2,000 cfs in the last 24 hours for the Spokane River.   The theory is that redband trout fry have emerged from their redds, and so there is no impact on fish.   These flows are fully controlled by Avista.

Link here to watch Spokane River flows in real time, and pray for the river.

 

Graph of  Discharge, cubic feet per second

 

 

 


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Federal Court Rules on Spokane River PCB Cleanup Plan: Evict Fox from Chicken Coop

The Spokane River has the worst PCB pollution of any river in Washington state.  On March 16, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara J. Rothstein ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology have engaged in troublesome delay in studying and addressing the problem of Spokane River PCB pollution.

Of particular concern to the Court is the substitution of the “Spokane River Toxics Task Force” as an alternative to preparing a water quality cleanup plan (known as a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL) as explicitly required by the Clean Water Act.  The Court’s decision observes that the Task Force concept lacks metrics to determine “measurable progress,” lacks deadlines, indeed lacks any connection to creating a cleanup plan,and that there has been a “worrying lack of progress made with respect to scientific data” to determine where the PCBs are and how to clean them up.

What is this Spokane River Task Force?  It is a committee composed of Spokane River polluters* who have permits, issued by the Department of Ecology, that require them to participate in the Task Force rather than actually clean up the toxic pollution they discharge to the River.   The interlocal agreement establishing the Task Force commits the polluters (and a few third party hangers-on) to study the hell out of the Spokane River PCB problem.   Actual cleanup actions, however, are not required.

For example, the Task Force’s definition of “measurable progress” include “inputs” (attending meetings) and “outputs” (preparing reports, plans and studies).   Of course “outcomes” are also important – including reduction of toxics in the Spokane River – but there is nothing in the Task Force mission that requires the polluters themselves to reduce pollution.  Indeed, the very purpose of the Task Force is to allow the polluters to avoid responsibility for removing the toxics they discharge to the river.

The Court’s March 16 decision precisely nails the problem:

“The record indicates that the Spokane River has been on the 303(d) list since 1996 and after nearly 20 years still contains the worst PCB pollution in the state. Despite this known problem and Ecology’s prioritization of the Spokane River PCBs, a substantial percentage of the pollution sources remain unknown.”

“. . . it is significant that no effective limitations [on polluter permits] have been put in place by the Board and the only significant condition imposed by the Board has been that point polluters participate in the Task Force.”

“There comes a point at which continual delay of a prioritized TMDL and detours to illusory alternatives ripen into a constructive submission that no action will be taken. With the Task Force as presently proposed, Ecology is coming dangerously close to such a point, and with EPA’s support. Accordingly, the Court finds that the EPA acted contrary to law in finding the Task Force, as it is currently comprised and described, a suitable “alternative” to the TMDL.”

Strong stuff.   At its core, the Court recognizes that Spokane River polluters should not be in charge of deciding how much they are allowed to pollute.

Most importantly, the Court directs EPA and Ecology to come up with a PCB cleanup plan for the Spokane River in a reasonable time frame.   The agencies must report back to the Court within 120 days with:

“. . . a definite schedule with concrete goals, including: clear statements on how the Task Force will assist in creating a PCB TMDL in the Spokane River by reducing scientific uncertainty; quantifiable metrics to measure progress toward that goal; regular checkpoints at which Ecology and the EPA will evaluate progress; a reasonable end date, at which time Ecology will finalize and submit the TMDL for the EPA’s approval or disapproval; and firm commitments to reducing PCB production from known sources in the interim.”

After 20-plus years, a PCB cleanup plan is finally on the radar screen for the Spokane River.  Thanks is due not to the Department of Ecology or the Environmental Protection Agency, agencies that have failed to live up to their statutory duties (not to mention their very names), but to the checks and balances of our democratic system, and to a federal court that knows a fox when it sees one.

 

*Spokane River polluters in Washington include Liberty Lake Water & Sewer District Water Reclamation Facility (sewage treatment plant), Inland Empire Paper, Kaiser Aluminum, Spokane County Water Reclamation Facility (sewage treatment plant) and the City of Spokane’s Riverside Park Water Reclamation Facility (sewage treatment plant).  The use of euphemistic names for the sewage treatment plants is a common tactic used by municipal polluters to obscure public understanding of their activities.


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My letter on behalf of the Spokane River

November 6, 2014

To the Washington Department of Ecology

These are my personal comments on the Spokane River instream flow rule.

Spokane River Sunset 11-6-14I live in the West Central neighborhood of Spokane, and walk along the north shore of the Spokane River between the Monroe dam and TJ Meenach bridge most days of the year, usually on the Centennial Trail. I also frequently walk the river in Riverside State Park on a south-side trail between Bowl & Pitcher and Devil’s Toenail.

The Spokane is an exquisitely beautiful river as it runs through the Spokane Gorge and through the state park. It is geologically unique, and much of this reach is free flowing.

My primary use and appreciation of the Spokane River is of its scenic qualities.   These qualities very much include how much water is flowing in the river.   The river in the reach between Monroe dam and Nine Mile pool is exceptionally beautiful when it runs between 2,500 and 3,500 cfs.  At these flows, riparian vegetation emerges at the edges and on the willow-strewn sandbars, and at the confluence of Hangman Creek.   The river looks full, but not overflowing or flooding.  Peering down from the Westlink pedestrian bridge at these flows we often see fish in the river.  Many people are boating, especially when the weather is hot (as in July-August of 2014).   Many people are fishing.

I have walked this stretch of the Spokane River for 15 years, since I moved to my home in 1999. Every year, I observe the flows drop during late summer.  I often look at USGS gage information on the web, showing instantaneous flows at the Spokane gage. As the flows drop below 2500 cfs, the rocks emerge, pools are created and isolated, and fewer people are boating.   Fishing, however, doesn’t change much, presumably because the fish become easier to catch as they are crowded into smaller spaces – something I worry about.

I am troubled that the proposed flows for the Spokane River will not protect these many instream uses. One can observe that 850 cfs is an extremely low flow for the river, and does not look healthy.

I’ve included a photo of the river that I took during my walk this evening, during sunset. The flow is approximately 2100 cfs.   You can see the outline of rocks along the shoreline.   You can also see the wild beauty of the river, just one mile from downtown Spokane.

Beyond my concerns for the aesthetic values, I know the Spokane River is a critical ecological resource.  Sandra Postel and Brian Richter have said it well in their book “Rivers for Life – Managing Water for People and Nature”:

“We need and value rivers for a host of reasons – some spiritual, some aesthetic, some practical. Yet only recently has scientific understanding of what constitutes a healthy river enabled us to grasp just how critical intact rivers are to the functioning of the natural world around us.  Rivers are more than conduits for water.  They are complex systems that do complicated work. They include not just the water flowing in their channels, but the food webs and nutrient cycles that operate within their beds and banks, the pools and wetlands that form on their floodplains, the sediment loads they carry, the rich deltas they form near their terminus, and even parts of the coastal or inland seas into which they empty. Along with their physical structures, river systems include countless plant and animal species that together keep them healthy and functioning.”

The Spokane River provides an enormous array of social, economic and ecological benefits to our community, which the draft instream flow rule does not respect. I ask that you please study all of the values of the Spokane River for all of the people and species and processes that depend on it.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments.

~ Rachael Paschal Osborn


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Washington State Proposes “Water Right” for the Spokane River

Spokane River at Low Flow

As reported in a previous post, the Washington Department of Ecology commenced formal rulemaking to create an instream flow rule for the Spokane River.  Public comments are needed by November 7th, and a public workshop and hearing will be held on October 22nd.

As with many of the Department of Ecology’s efforts, the Spokane River rule is both good news and bad news.   Instream flow rules create a “water right for the river” that prevents allocation of future water rights that harm streamflows.   It is important and necessary that Washington state create such a water right for the Spokane River.

But Ecology has low-balled the proposed instream flow numbers, proposing to protect no more than 850 cfs below Monroe St. dam in summer months.   This proposal fails to give the Spokane River the real protections that it needs.

There are several issues around the numbers Ecology has picked.  First, these flows (which change with the seasons) are not sufficiently protective of the important redband trout fish that live in the river.   Ecology and the Dept of Fish & Wildlife have offered some excuses along the lines of “fish need less water.”  Don’t believe it.

These flows also fail to recognize the Spokane River’s popularity as a recreational resources for boaters.   Ecology engaged in zero research or outreach as to what kind of flows boaters and paddlers need.

Second, Washington and Idaho are slowly building toward an interstate dispute over how much water each state is entitled to use (both instream and out of stream).  By picking low numbers, Ecology is giving away the barn, the horses, the tractors, and the hay.   It is not clear why our state public servants feel they have the authority to make such a giveaway.  Who’s in charge here?  This is an important interstate sovereignty issue that has received no attention whatsoever from Governor Inslee’s office.

Finally, Ecology’s instream flow scientists recently reported on the methods they use to establish instream flow numbers.  The bottom line – in all other watersheds in Washington, Ecology is using very conservative numbers that protect flows in rivers nine years out of ten.   Not the Spokane though, where the flows give 50% or less protection.   Why, particularly given the interstate issues, is the Spokane singled out for LESS protection than other rivers around the state?

Citizens who care about the Spokane River need to get involved.  Keep an eye on this blog and www.celp.org for more information about how to comment and act to protect the Spokane River.

 

 

 

 


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When Will Salmon Return to the Spokane?

Salmon Chief Spokane Falls (Luke Wiley photo)

Salmon Chief sculpture at Spokane Falls. Artist Smoker Marchand. Photo by Luke Wiley Photography, http://law.aminus3.com/

Not just sockeye, but wild sockeye, are returning to the Washington and British Columbia Okanogan country in record-breaking numbers, right now.  Lynda Mapes tells the wonderful story in yesterday’s Seattle Times, “On Columbia, ‘just add water’ seems to be working.”

Water flows are critical to salmon’s ability to get up the river, around the dams, and home to natal spawning grounds.  For Okanogan sockeye, the water spills at Columbia River dams ordered by Judge Redden, as part of the epic Columbia hydropower system Endangered Species Act lawsuits, are proving their merit this year with sockeye’s return.  And just as critical, the Native Nations of the Okanogan Nation Alliance have been the leaders in calling the salmon home — through hard work, collaboration, negotiation, and faith.

When will salmon — in this case Chinook and steelhead — return to the Spokane River?  The “calling home” has begun, with official discussions of fish passage at Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams, with the Spokane City Council’s endorsement of the NW Power Council’s proposal for return of salmon to the Upper Columbia, and even with the Salmon Chief sculpture installed at the base of the Spokane Falls in May.

And maybe, just maybe, the Washington Department of Ecology will come to understand its role to ensure enough water in a critical spawning and rearing area for our future salmon, when it adopts an instream flow for the Spokane River later this year.   So far, Ecology has not seen its place in this calling of the salmon home.

But it’s not too late.

Salmon will return to the Spokane.  People with vision, please visit here.