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A golden harvest near Oakesdale.
Photo by Teresa Hodges





Ecology settles Hangman Creek lawsuit

Agreement likely to bring extra scrutiny to Spokane County growers

May 2018
By Trista Crossley

A recent agreement between the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the Spokane Riverkeeper will likely bring a renewed focus on agriculture as a source of nonpoint pollution in the Hangman Creek Watershed in southern Spokane County.

The agreement settles a lawsuit brought by the Spokane Riverkeeper in 2015 that claimed Ecology wasn’t doing enough to clean up the Hangman Creek Watershed fast enough. In 2009, Ecology published a report setting total maximum daily loads for the watershed to bring it into compliance with the state’s water quality standards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed off on the report and Ecology’s plan to address the watershed’s problems. The lawsuit claimed that Ecology couldn’t provide reasonable assurances that it could meet the standard in the clean-up plan.

“There’s certainly been some work done in the watershed,” said Chad Atkins, Ecology’s acting watershed unit supervisor for the Hangman Creek Watershed. “But some of that work takes a long time to see in terms of water quality benefits in-stream. It takes time for trees to grow; vegetation to get established; and some tillage practice improvements to show up in the water column. It’s also fair to say that progress has been slow to date. This provides an opportunity to work with our partners and make some additional progress.”

According to the agreement with the Spokane Riverkeeper, Ecology will complete an assessment of the watershed to analyze it’s health, document pollution inputs, prioritize improvement work and monitor the effectiveness of best management practices (BMPs). The assessment will include the main stem of Hangman Creek as well as its primary tributaries. That assessment must be completed by June 2019 and will establish a baseline of riparian health. The assessment will be used as the basis for addressing problems in the watershed, with Ecology providing progress reports annually.

Hangman Creek is known for carrying large amounts of sedimentation, but Ecology has also documented problems with too-warm water, dissolved oxygen issues and high nutrient levels, all of which impact the ability of the watershed to provide native fish habitat.

“We know that a lot of streams in the watershed have been altered, usually prior to any of the current landowners being there. One of the challenges will be to improve stream function and stream health in addition to upland sediment,” Atkins said. “How (Hangman Creek) delivers nutrients downstream to the Spokane River is probably the most significant issue we will focus on. When we can improve stream health, we can address all those other water quality parameters we are concerned about.”

Focus on nonpoint pollution sources

Pollution in the watershed comes from both point sources (municipal sewage treatment plants) and nonpoint sources (agricultural runoff, runoff from golf courses and residential septic systems). With most point sources of pollution under control and closely monitored, Ecology will be focusing on nonpoint sources in its assessment. Under the lawsuit agreement, the department will identify at least 10 livestock and 10 tillage problem areas in the watershed and work with landowners and agency partners to address the issues and implement BMPs. Atkins said while agriculture is a big part of the watershed, Ecology will also be looking at suburban Spokane runoff issues, runoff from golf courses and forestry issues.

“Hangman Creek has a lot of natural sediment in it, but a lot of human-caused portion as well. We are trying to take a holistic approach to what are those human causes. We aren’t pointing a finger at agriculture, but it needs to be part of the solution,” he said.

In identifying the tillage areas of concern, some of the signs Ecology will be looking for include:

• Sheet and rill erosion;
• Gully formation;
• Active bank erosion caused by tillage and crop production;
• Swales or other drainage features carrying pollutants to surface water;
• Tillage and crop production adjacent to or through field ditches; and
• Tillage and crop production through a stream.

Brook Beeler, Ecology’s eastern region communication manager, explained that Ecology has been monitoring the Hangman Creek Watershed for the past several years and said the assessment will take advantage of previous work. The department floated down the entire watershed last summer and has already been working with landowners, mostly on livestock issues. On the tillage side, the department has already identified some areas of concern. The department will likely begin notifying landowners later this year, either by telephone or letter, to satisfy that portion of the settlement’s requirement.

The big picture

The Hangman Creek Watershed covers nearly 700 square miles and about 430,000 acres in Kootenai and Benewah counties in Northern Idaho and Spokane and Whitman counties in Eastern Washington. The fact that part of the watershed is in a different state that isn’t party to the agreement with the Spokane Riverkeeper complicates the issue. Atkins said Ecology recognizes that Idaho will need to be part of the solution and that they will be in communication with that state.

Ecology also hopes to partner with other Washington state organizations, such as the Spokane Conservation District, to help landowners implement approved management practices to address issues. Those practices—the BMPs—are being developed at the state level with the input of stakeholders.

“At the end of the day, it is our responsibility to make sure water quality is protected, and we will work closely with our partners to determine what is a reasonable, on-the-ground improvement,” Beeler said regarding those BMPs.

In April, the Spokane Conservation District (SCD) held a meeting in Fairfield, Wash., to remind landowners about the financial and technical assistance available through the conservation district. Part of the meeting was set aside to talk about Ecology’s agreement and what it might mean for landowners in the Hangman Creek Watershed. More than 70 people showed up to voice not only their concerns about the settlement, but their frustrations with Ecology.

Walt Edelen, manager of the SCD water resources program, said the conservation district will be involved in helping landowners as much as possible as the impacts of the settlement begin to manifest. The SCD offers programs that provide technical and financial assistance to growers who want to implement alternative tillage or other conservation practices to address water quality concerns.

“Although we don’t always agree with the approach Ecology or the Riverkeeper utilizes with producers and operators, we are dedicated in working on the behalf of our landowners to help them resolve natural resource issues,” Edelen said.

Following the meeting, SCD Director Vicki Carter issued the following statement: “The SCD believes the meeting on April 12 went as well as could be expected considering the potential impact to our local livestock and agricultural producers. We see our role as providing options through technical and financial assistance to maintain the viability of our producers and operators in their efforts to comply with water quality regulations. We plan to continue to keep interested landowners updated with information that comes out regarding the settlement.”

One of the complaints raised at the SCD meeting was that no matter what practices are put in place, Ecology keeps raising the bar and can never be satisfied. Atkins acknowledged that sometimes new information or improved science can change the department’s standards.

“We need to get to the point where water quality isn’t being impacted. That’s been our standard all along,” he said. “For the most part, when we work with landowners and come up with a set of practices we think will be protective, once those are implemented, we are no longer concerned with the site and property.”

Beeler added that thanks to a strong body of science on what fish need in terms of water quality, it’s likely that the fixes a landowner implements now will protect fish against future problems.

Looking ahead

In the past, Ecology has met with landowners individually and in small groups throughout the watershed to update them on the department’s activities. Atkins said they will continue to do that as they move forward with the settlement terms.

“The more we can get out and talk, the better off we all are. We don’t want to try to do this work in a bubble,” he said. “I want to make the point that dryland agriculture is an important part of our inland Northwest community. It’s something we really value. We ultimately want a watershed where we have both healthy production agriculture and healthy streams. We are big believers that we can have both of those things.”