The Spokane Conservation District will receive $1.75 million in the form of grants and loans from the state Ecology Department to continue cleanup of Latah Creek, a tributary of the Spokane River that has long been plagued by swift soil erosion, high temperatures and agricultural runoff.
“There’s a ton of work that needs to happen in this watershed,” said Mitch Redfern, water quality implementation lead for both Latah Creek and the Palouse River for the Ecology Department.
Of the money, $1 million has been set aside by the Conservation District for low-interest loans to area farmers to purchase equipment that is less disruptive of the soil during cultivation, extending already lengthy efforts to change agricultural practices along the 60-mile long stream that also goes by the name Hangman Creek. A half million dollars in grant money will be used to continue efforts to reach out to area farmers to adopt no-till planting practices and adapt to Latah Creek other types of soil conservation efforts that have seen success elsewhere along the Spokane River and throughout the state, said Walt Edelen, water resources manager for the Conservation District. Finally, $250,000 will be used to reshape about a quarter mile of creek shoreline on private property near Valleyford that is particularly susceptible to soil erosion.
That work will continue previous efforts at stabilization on adjacent property upstream, Edelen said. It demonstrates the incentives-based approach the Conservation District and Ecology Department have taken to reduce turbid water in the creek that flows directly into the Spokane River near Peaceful Valley, causing a mishmash of brownish and clear flows that have been well-documented by photographers and conservation groups.
“For agriculture, we’re trying to get people to take a different look, or a different perspective from what they’re doing currently, and if they’re thinking about moving then we’re ready to move them,” Edelen said. “There’s people out there that are pretty staunch in their conventional practices, and they’re not going to cave. And we’re not going to spend our time trying to convince them.”
The pollution in Latah Creek prompted a lawsuit from the Spokane Riverkeeper, litigation that in 2018 was settled with an agreement by the Ecology Department to contact landowners in the watershed and adopt plans for improvement. Jerry White Jr., Spokane Riverkeeper, said the additional money to fund incentives to clean up the creek was a good step, but regulators also need to be ready to pursue enforcement for farmers and ranchers unwilling to reduce the pollution coming from their land.
“Until both of those things are working in concert, we’re going to have problems in the Hangman basin,” White said.
Work on stabilization of the creek bed near Valleyford is expected to begin in fall 2021, Edelen said. In the meantime, the Conservation District – which was awarded the grant and loan money through a competitive process – will work to re-establish stakeholder groups in the watershed to set up parameters for landowner assistance programs.
That could include compensating growers for land they use as buffer zones between water and crops, loans for buying no-till equipment and other measures.