Riverkeeper keeps making progress
Fishing for Chinook salmon each spring with his grandfather on the Willamette River, Jerry White fell in love with rivers. Now he seeks to preserve rivers so others can fall in love with them, too.
With Spokane Riverkeeper, he works to keep waters clean, banks litter-free, users healthy and safe, and fish runs sustainable.
"If the waters are healthy, people are healthy," he said.
River use includes fishing, boating, floating, swimming, paddleboards on or in the river, walking and biking on trails beside the river, or just going to the river to enjoy the sounds, serenity or sunsets.
Spokane Riverkeeper, which began as a project of the Center for Justice, is now an independent nonprofit with its own board and bylaws. It moved to a new office in the Community Building at 35 W. Main after the Center for Justice closed March 17.
Jerry has worked there six years, five as executive director, along with half-time technical director Jule Schultz.
"As a member of the International Waterkeeper Alliance, we protect the river and give it a voice," Jerry said, referring to efforts to limit toxic discharges, reduce turbidity, pick up litter, serve river users and restore fish runs.
"The river is cleaner. As a society, we have made progress on certain types of pollution, like phosphorous and bacteria. Cities now have stormwater systems. Dischargers have put in more sophisticated treatment and filtration," he said.
Jerry considers the Columbia River Watershed his home, living his early years in Corvallis, Ore., on the Willamette River. His family moved to Cheney where his parents taught at middle school.
"I remember coming into Spokane when I was in the fifth grade, looking over the Howard Street Bridge and marveling at the green water," he said.
While studying anthropology at Western Washington University in Bellingham, he often spent summers salmon fishing in Alaska.
After graduating in 1988, Jerry worked five years as an archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service in Spokane. He assured environmental compliance under the 1980s National Historic Preservation Act that required cultural and biological clearance before federal lands were cleared for a road or timber sale.
In 1996, he earned a master's degree in teaching and for 15 years he taught history and English at Medical Lake, St. George's School and Shaw Middle School. His commitment to rivers, fish and environment wove into his lessons.
In 2004, he joined the Trout Unlimited Board. In 2008, he became an advocate with Save Our Wild Salmon. In 2014, Spokane Riverkeeper hired him.
Jerry understands why people settled along rivers.
"Indigenous cultures were spiritually, culturally and economically attached to rivers and fish. Rivers impact people today. My attachment to rivers is more than economic or social. I have a spiritual connection to the Spokane River and the Columbia River watershed that's deeper than having fun," he said.
"The river, people, fish and other creatures belong to the river and are entitled to the river's health and wellbeing," he said. "My caring is part of my belief that rivers, native fish and blue heron are entitled to exist because they are part of creation.
"The river as part of creation is sacred," he said. "It brings life and it brings death. The river is beautiful and dangerous. The river has an awesome energy—beyond power to turn water wheels.
"My mission with Spokane Riverkeeper is to protect the Spokane River. It's our river," he said.
Riverkeeper prioritizes several ways to protect the river.
• First, Spokane Riverkeeper litigates to defend clean water and wins cases. It upholds laws and policies, such as the Clean Water Act, to preserve and maintain waterways.
Deregulation threatens the laws, Jerry said. Some entities seek variances to standards that prohibit dumping toxic pollutants, such as PCBs, in permitted discharges through pipes into the river. The dischargers are Kaiser, Inland Empire Paper, Liberty Lake, Spokane and Spokane County, he said., adding that they seek variances because they say it's hard to remove PCBs from wastewater.
"We fight variances as a rollback to safety. Unfortunately, it is an ongoing epic. There's a long-term effort to weaken water quality," he said.
This summer, Spokane Riverkeeper submitted comments to the Environmental Protection Agency and Washington Department of Ecology on why variances should not be approved and water quality standards weakened.
Gonzaga Environmental Law Clinic helps them uphold policies and laws, doing legal analyses of recent applications for 20-year variances.
"It's hard technically to meet the standard, but if a discharger wins a 20-year variance, it may become a permanent change, allowing them to continue dumping high levels of toxins in the river," Jerry said. "The river already exceeds the level of toxins for fish, making it unhealthy for wildlife and people. It's not okay to change the standard, just because it's hard to meet."
Riverkeeper joins in litigation with Puget Sound Waterkeeper, other Waterkeepers and the Makah Tribe to prevent rollbacks related to multiple toxins—such as PCBs and other pollutants.
Because litigations are part of its mission, Spokane Riverkeeper began as part of the Center for Justice. Now it works with a coalition of lawyers.
Sometimes litigation is not needed. The Department of Ecology set up a cleanup plan for the 70-mile-long, 600-square-acre Hangman Creek.
Jerry said they recently participated in a settlement with Darigold to protect the flow of turbidity into the stormwater system in North Spokane.
"It's an example of corporate stewards responding immediately," he said. "They settled out of court in the early summer, agreeing to install filters and pay $125,000, which Spokane Riverkeeper gave to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe for restoration work to reduce turbidity on Hangman Creek above Tekoa."
The tribe is planting trees along the creek to prevent runoff when livestock enter the creek. That reduces turbidity, so the creek is getting cleaner.
• Second, this year, Spokane Riverkeeper has partnered with Spokane River Forum to do the Get Up and Get Out Spokane Litter Program. They organize volunteers to pick up litter—sleeping bags, glass, plastic bags, aluminum cans, bikes and shopping carts—along the river corridor from Wellpinit to the Post Falls Dam.
Individuals, congregations, schools, businesses and other groups set cleanup days through the summer.
"We go with volunteers, encouraging them to wear masks and social distance," Jerry said.
There have been 19 group cleanups, plus two public litter events. In 2019, more than 400 volunteers picked up more than 20,000 pounds of riverside litter. With COVID, there are fewer people because of the need to distance.
"Refuse is from careless floaters and boaters, homeless camps and urban trash blowing," he said.
"Plastics are pernicious. There are huge amounts. It is the most concerning. Plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that pollute in the water and on the land. Birds, fish, animals and people eat the micro-plastic pieces. Plastic not disposed of properly, winds up in the environment," Jerry said. "We also find a lot of glass, which is an aesthetic problem, but not a pollutant, because it's inert.
"We don't know how to dispose of plastic. If it's burned at the Waste to Energy Plant, it emits carbon dioxide and PCBs. Only #1 and #5 plastics can now be recycled," he explained.
• Third, Spokane Riverkeeper patrols the river in three boats in an outreach to homeless people. They partner with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program and the Washington State University College of Medicine.
This summer, they have taken SNAP staff and physicians to people in 20 camps on the banks in inaccessible areas to avoid having camps moved, and to escape violence and theft.
"There are more people poor and homeless in times of economic insecurity," Jerry said.
SNAP helps people sign up for social security cards and move into transitional housing. Street medicine volunteers help with medical needs.
To deal with sanitation and litter issues, Riverkeeper offers litter bags so trash does not go in the river.
"Most use them because they want to keep the camp clean," he said.
• Fourth, Spokane Riverkeeper promotes wild fish populations, helping sustain redband trout and supporting tribal efforts to sustain steelhead and salmon.
Jerry also connects farmers and environmentalists as stakeholders to encourage best agricultural practices to improve water quality.
As technical director, Jule assists in all the efforts, with a focus on scientific data gathering. He takes river temperatures to assess the river's health and studies turbidity.
Two events are planned in the fall.
• The Wild and Scenic Film Festival with 90 minutes of short films and a group chat will be held virtually Thursday, Sept 10. Tickets give access to the virtual link and door prizes.
• The "Spoken River" on Oct. 28 will include a virtual auction of art and access to stories of connection with and inspiration from the Spokane River.
For information, call 464-7614, email email@example.com or go to spokaneriverkeeper.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September, 2020