Spokane River

6th Most
Endangered River
of 2004

Take Action To Help The River

visits since April 14, 2004



America's 10 most Endangered Rivers Of 2004

#6 Spokane River Report

Read the report (PDF)

Yes, We Need a Regional Water Quality Authority

The News Conference

Take Action To Help The River


  • authorized to pump more than 620 million gallons per day from the aquifer, a figure that exceeds the river's recent daily flow during summer
  • carelessly deeded water to cities, farmers and industry without adequately assessing ecological impacts on the river

 Spokane River

One of America's
10 most Endangered Rivers of 2004

America's Most Endangered Rivers of 2004 (left to right)

Snake River (#3), Ingredients include: hot water, chopped up salmon, invasive predators;
Tennessee River (#4), Ingredients include: water, sewage, E. coli, dysentery, hepatitis, cryptosporidium;
Allegheny and Monongahela rivers (#5), Ingredients include: water, acid, iron, aluminum, manganese;
Colorado River (#1), Ingredients include: water, uranium, nitrates, ammonium perchlorate, ammonia;
Peace River (#8), Ingredients include: water, clay, uranium, radium;
Housatonic River (#7), Ingredients include: water, PCBs;
Big Sunflower River (#2), Ingredients include: water, DDT, toxaphene;
Spokane River (#6), Ingredients include: water, sewage, PCBs, lead, arsenic, zinc, and cadmium;
Mississippi River (#10), Ingredients include: water, sediment, nutrients, pesticides;
Big Darby Creek (#9), Ingredients may soon include: stormwater, trash, sediment, fertilizer, automotive fluids
Read the April 14 news release
American Rivers • Sierra Club • The Lands Council • Idaho Conservation League


  • sewage utilities are seeking exemptions from regulations

  • form the Spokane River Regional Sewer Authority: to effectively resolve the environmental issues

About America's most endangered rivers

On April 14th the Spokane River was recognized as the 6th most endangered river in America.

Each year since 1986, American Rivers and its partners in the river movement have released the America's Most Endangered Rivers report to highlight rivers nationwide reaching crucial crossroads. The report highlights acute threats rather than chronic conditions; it is not a list of the nation's "worst" or most polluted rivers.

American Rivers solicits nominations annually from thousands of river groups, conservation organizations, outdoor clubs, and individual activists. Our staff and scientific advisors review the nominations for the following criteria:

  • The magnitude of the threat to the river
  • A major decision point in the coming year affecting that threat
  • The regional and national significance of the river

This report does more than list problems; it highlights alternatives and solutions, identifies those who will make the crucial decisions, and points out opportunities for the public to take action on behalf of each listed river. America's Most Endangered Rivers has a distinguished track record of improved public policy decisions that benefit listed rivers.

Recognizing that the threats facing the listed rivers are seldom unique, each report includes a special chapter that explores a broader issue suggested by the rivers on the list that year. This year's report explores how new loopholes and lax enforcement of clean water laws will accelerate the trend towards more polluted rivers nationwide.

About American Rivers

American Rivers, founded in 1973, is the leader of a nationwide river conservation movement.

American Rivers is dedicated to protecting and restoring healthy natural rivers, and the variety of life they sustain, for the benefit of people, fish and wildlife.

America's most endangered rivers

#6 Spokane River



More pollution concentrated in less water will be the future of the Spokane River unless new groundwater withdrawal applications are rejected, sewage plants meet stringent water quality standards, and mine waste is cleaned up.

The River

The Spokane River flows from Lake Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho approximately 90 miles northwest through Spokane, Wash., before emptying into the Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam. Much of the river's flows, particularly during summer, come from underground springs fed by the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer. The importance of this aquifer to the river and the region is hard to overstate. It also provides drinking water to 400,000 people in the Spokane area, and is liberally pumped by irrigators in Idaho, and industrial and municipal users in Washington.

For 10,000 years, native peoples gathered at a magnificent set of falls and rapids to catch salmon and trade with their neighbors. In the 1870s, the river's abundant water and energy potential attracted new settlers to this spot. Today, the Spokane River is a vital part of the quality of life in its namesake city, offering riverfront trails and parks, a prized trout fishery, whitewater recreation and dramatic, natural scenery.

The Risk

Spokane Falls, the city's signature natural feature, sputters and runs dry most summers, a consequence of over-pumping the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer, the operations of Avista Corporation's Post Falls Dam, and diverting the river above the falls to Avista's Spokane power plant.

Every gallon pumped out of the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer is one less gallon that reaches the river. Water users are authorized to pump more than 620 million gallons per day from the aquifer, a figure that exceeds the river's recent daily flow during summer.

State agencies in Idaho and Washington that manage the aquifer have carelessly deeded water to cities, farmers and industry without adequately assessing ecological impacts on the river. This generosity has fueled wasteful habits, per capita water use in the region is among the highest in the nation.

The Spokane River: Too little water, too much pollution, and an uncertain future

Shrinking river flows exacerbate another serious problem: five sewage treatment plants discharge into the river. Low flows concentrate the wastewater discharges, making it difficult for utilities to avoid violating water quality standards. Rather than upgrade their facilities, these utilities are seeking exemptions from regulations.

The final insult to the Spokane River is toxic pollution flowing from the area around Lake Coeur d'Alene. Former mining and lead smelting operations there have contaminated the river with heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, zinc, and cadmium that cause health problems, including brain and nerve damage in children. High pollution levels have prompted fish consumption warnings in Washington. In 1999, the Spokane River carried mine waste including 400 tons of lead and other metals and arsenic to the Columbia River.

In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Superfund cleanup plan for the Spokane River-Lake Coeur d'Alene basin. The contaminated lake, the river's source, is not in the plan. The Bush administration transferred effective control of the cleanup to Idaho, which opposes the designation and the cleanup because of costs, opposition by mining interests, and because local business leaders fear negative publicity for the area's real estate and tourism industry centered on Lake Coeur d'Alene. Continued funding is in doubt due to shortfalls in the federal Superfund program that is supposed to help pay for the project.

The 12-Month Outlook

Idaho and Washington are determining future pumping levels for the Spokane-Rathdrum Aquifer, and will release final plans in 2004. Simultaneously, the states are working with the U.S. Geological Survey to study the aquifer and river. The states should enact a moratorium on new aquifer pumping until the study is concluded, and include stringent conservation provisions in forthcoming aquifer management plans.

The Washington Department of Ecology will issue a river cleanup plan in 2004, establishing standards to address low oxygen levels in the river. At the same time, the Bush administration has signaled that it may greatly reduce the federal role in this important Clean Water Act program. Washington state and the federal government should continue to work together to reduce polluted runoff in the Spokane River.

Spokane River sewage dischargers are seeking exemptions from water quality standards that protect spawning conditions for trout. Their tool to accomplish this is a Clean Water Act provision called "use attainability analysis." If accepted, the exemptions will allow sewage to be dumped more liberally, and trout survival is less likely. Public hearings about the exemption requests will be held in late 2004 and in 2005. The Washington Department of Ecology and the federal EPA must reject these requests from sewage dischargers.

In the 2004 session of Congress, lawmakers should reinstate the Superfund Tax on oil and chemicals that provides funds to clean up toxic sites like the Spokane River. This "polluter pays" funding source expired in 1995, leading to the current funding crisis for the program. Despite opposition from President Bush, Congress should reauthorize the tax to ensure that cleanup of the Spokane River and other sites nationwide goes forward and polluters rather than taxpayers pay for cleanup.

View the full report here.

Yes, We Need a Regional Water Quality Authority

Lessons for the Spokane River from Lake Washington

by John Osborn, MD

Here's the problem: 400,000 people flush sewage effluent into the Spokane River. The river receives more'"nutrients" and ammonia and phosphorous than it can handle. Oxygen in the water needed by fish to breathe is depleted. Low concentrations of dissolved oxygen harm or kill fish, and risk algae blooms, from the state line to Lake Spokane (Long Lake).

The river's capacity for handling sewage is already over the limits and municipal and industrial polluters are going to have to ratchet back on their existing discharges. Yet Liberty Lake and others propose to increase their effluent under cover of the Department of Ecology's expired pollution permits.

This problem will worsen as the river is dewatered by Aquifer overpumping, water impoundment behind Post Falls Dam, and run-away growth and development from Coeur d'Alene to Spokane.

Five sewage treatment plants along the Spokane River
are seeking exemptions from clean water standards.

To save the Spokane River we need to tackle the problem on a regional basis, reduce discharges to the river, and find alternatives for treating our sewage. Frankly, it costs money to treat our sewage. It costs money to have a clean river -- not a sewer -- flowing through our community.

Right now five different treatment plants are discharging to the River, with a sixth on the way. We don't see the "brown trout" and toilet paper from the days of raw sewage discharges, but river-killing nutrients are in the water.

Where are we with finding a regional solution? The Spokane River has a limited capacity for sewage, yet our governments, from local to federal, are fighting with each other about how to divide up a "shrinking pie", rather than organizing a collective solution:

  • Washington is fighting with Idaho.
  • The City of Spokane is fighting with Spokane County.
  • The City of Spokane Valley is thinking about fighting with Spokane County.
  • Liberty Lake is fighting with itself.
  • The polluters (including individual sewer districts, municipalities, and industrial facilities) are fighting with the state.
  • Governor Locke and his Department of Ecology are fighting with EPA.

All of this fighting is costing taxpayers and is driving fracture lines through our community.

It's time for a new model, a new way of thinking about sewage and the Spokane River. What can we learn from experiences elsewhere?

In the 1960s, Lake Washington in western Washington suffered from too much sewage pollution. The cities surrounding the Lake realized that a regional fix was needed. They formed a cooperative sewer district, and built two treatment plants to serve the entire region and get the sewage out of the Lake.

Saving Lake Washington is a classic case study in saving a water body. Lake Washington became an engine of economic growth and civic pride.

It's time for us to do the same here. It's time to form the Spokane River Regional Sewer Authority: stop fighting, and face the environmental problems created by growth.

For sewage and the Spokane River, we need to think regionally and develop cooperative sewage-treatment remedies. Does it make sense investing public monies at Liberty Lake, Post Falls, or the City of Spokane -- or is there a more efficient and cost effective regional remedy?

This year our community will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Expo '74, the first world's fair to trumpet an environmental message. The community and its leaders invited the world here to the banks of the Spokane River. Let's mark that transforming event by re-dedicating ourselves to saving the Spokane River.

John Osborn is a physician and conservationist. He volunteers as the conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Upper Columbia River Group.

The News Conference

Spokane Falls, site of the release of the America's Most Endangered Rivers Report, April 14

John Osborn, Sierra Club. Spokane faces a choice: "near nature, near perfect" -- or "will a sewer run through it"?

Chase Davis, Sierra Club.

Deb Abrahamson and Merle, Spokane Tribal Elder.

Tribal members and Sierra Club member talk about the past and future of the Spokane River.

Deb Abrahamson, SHAWL (Saving Our Health Air Water and Land) and Spokane Tribal activist.

Ross Freeman, American Rivers, explaining Spokane River problems to reporters.