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Ecology Department Begins Hangman Creek Assessment

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

This week and next, members of the Washington Department of Ecology’s watershed unit are taking a unique trip. On Monday, they started their venture in Rock Creek in northern Whitman County. Then they moved into Hangman Creek.

“Looking at non-point pollution, but also documenting the riparian health and the overall stream health,” Hummel said.

That’s Steve Hummel. Today we met him and his partner Martyn Quinn as they prepared to continue their voyage. Quinn says the goal is to get a water-level view of the 60-mile stretch of stream, which meanders through farmland south of Spokane and eventually empties into the Spokane River.

“By getting down on the river and doing these assessments, we get a much better view than we can just from the public right-of-way," Quinn said.

This time of year the water runs muddy, which in itself isn’t unusual. The problem, says Hummel, is that Hangman often runs muddy.

“You can even see with your naked eye, many times of the year, where the confluence of Hangman and the Spokane River, you see the blue of the Spokane River and the plume of sediment from Hangman Creek, crashing into the Spokane,” he said.

The state has worked for years to clean up the Spokane. The entities that dump treated wastewater into the river have had to spend millions to clean up their effluent. They are referred to as "point sources" because there’s a specific place where the wastewater is released. Ecology is also working to reduce the pollution from “non-point sources”, such as Hangman. The first step is to find out from where that pollution is coming.

When we arrived, Hummel and Quinn were preparing their supplies for the day. The bottom of their canoe is all scuffed.

“This was a brand new canoe at the start of the trip. It’s had a rough go. Most of the damage is from Rock Creek. It’s pretty bony,” Hummel said.

There’s a GoPro on the front of the boat to record video.

About three times a day they get out and take a closer look. They check the vegetation, what’s native and what’s not. Where are the trees growing and where is the water shaded? How badly are the banks eroding? Hummel is also looking for insects.

“The bugs are going to give us a good idea of the overall water quality of Hangman Creek. You’d see in a heavily-impacted stream there’s going to be more like black fly larvae or midge larvae, really tolerant species," Hummel said. "In a nice healthy stream, you’d see more stone flies and may flies and caddis flies.”

They record their findings on a iPad.

Before they climb in their boat and start today’s trip, Quinn takes me to the rail of a small bridge and we look upstream. Right in front of us, the creek has widened, like a bulging artery. An island of reeds has grown right in the middle of the channel, forcing the water to go around it.

“As you can see here, it’s pushing the flow out left and right and when there’s substantially higher flows, that increases the possibility of it going beyond its normal bank for width. And then you’ve got flooding issues and increased erosion as well,” Martyn said.

He says it’s not a healthy riparian channel. Hummel points to other signs of that.

“All of the grass you’re seeing right here is reed canary grass, which is invasive. It’s a grass that has really shallow roots," he said. "Instead of a nice, healthy, stabilized stream bank, the right bank, looking downstream here, you can see it sloughing off into the stream.”

“This stream should be swimmable and fishable, but most people looking at it right now would probably be wise to make the choice of not dipping their toes in there,” Martyn said.

Ecology’s plan now is to gather evidence and measure the extent of the problem in Hangman Creek. Over the years, the agency has worked with private partners to make improvements at specific spots along the stream. It plans to continue with that in hopes of making Hangman Creek a healthier place.