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Spokane Riverkeeper partners to help community clean up river

Jerry White, Spokane Riverkeeper
Jerry White seeks to educate and involve community, faith groups

Every day Spokane Riverkeeper Jerry White, Jr., works on ways to make the river cleaner so it’s more swimmable, fishable, floatable and accessible.

He educates, advocates and involves people in programs to maintain vegetation on river banks, monitor pollution, reduce storm water and sewage overflows, remove toxics, and clean up garbage in and litter beside the river.

Fly fishing with his grandfather on the Willamette River in Oregon imbedded his connection with rivers.  So did his fascination with the Spokane Falls during Expo ‘74.

Since July 2014, he has applied his skills as a teacher and communicator, to speak to the city, nonprofits, schools and congregations.

After graduating in 1990 with a degree in anthropology from Western Washington University and earning a master’s in teaching at Whitworth in 1996, he taught 13 years at Medical Lake, St. George’s and then Shaw Middle School.

He wove his environmental and fish conservation ethics into his teaching. 

“I have a strong sense of place and I tried to help students be aware of their attachment to the places where they live,” said Jerry, who grew up in Cheney.

In 2008, he stepped out of teaching to be environment advocate with Save Our Wild Salmon for three years.  He returned to teach at Shaw until the Riverkeeper job opened.

Jerry and his family moved in 1999 to the edge of the Spokane River in the West Central part of Spokane, where he can fly fish. 

Spokane Riverkeeper is a program of the Center for Justice and part of the Waterkeeper Alliance Movement, which started in the 1960s when Hudson River fishermen found that PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) pollution, the superheated discharge water from power plants and power plant intake pipes were killing fish.

Today, Waterkeeper groups have spread to 200 areas globally.  There are chapters for Coeur d’Alene Lake and Lake Pend Oreille Lake.

Jerry said its specialty is education, community collaboration, watchdog activities and public advocacy for water, using litigation under the Clean Water Act.  The Hudson River Waterkeepers were the first to have a boat that patrols the river for pollution. 

Spokane Riverkeeper has two boats, a blue raft named the Blue Heron and a canoe to patrol the river for pollution from Stateline through downtown and Long Lake to the Columbia River.

“We look at issues all along the river, but Spokane is the focus,” said Jerry, who has learned how complex the issues are.

They partner with the City of Spokane, the Department of Ecology, Spokane County and nonprofits

Every week several volunteers go out in the boat for litter cleanups.  They also schedule land cleanups along the shore with community, faith and school groups.

Spokane Riverkeeper offered activities for Love Your River Month in September.

They are also involved in the tributaries of the Spokane River.

The temperature of Hangman Creek, a tributary, is warm enough to kill fish.  The Clean Water Act now recognizes that Hangman Creek is impaired by turbidity, PH levels, temperature and bacteria.

There is shoreline damage from people destroying shrubs, usually unaware of the science and the function of vegetation along rivers, Jerry said.

“Rivers incorporate vegetation as protective clothing.  Willows and hawthorn trees shade the river, provide habitat for caddis flies and stone flies, which are critical to the life cycle of fish and native trout, which are critical to the survival of blue herons, otters and kingfishers,” he said describing the ecological interconnections.

Vegetation holds the soil, keeping the water from being muddy or eroding the banks in high water.

If vegetation is stripped, sun overheats the water, soil washes into the river so biological systems collapse, Jerry said.

“Palouse soil erodes into Hangman Creek as farmers cultivate to its edge, and tillage practices mean soil and chemicals wash into it and flow into the river,” he said.

Hangman Creek has become agriculture’s industrial corridor. Soil runoff has almost killed the river, he said.  Phosphorous and nitrates bind to the soil, depressing the river’s oxygen and creating algae blooms in Long Lake and downriver.  Native trout are disappearing, replaced by invasive small mouth bass and walleye.

“We encourage long-term efforts to improve and reform agricultural practices and land use, holding land owners accountable for cleanup of Hangman Creek and the Spokane River,” Jerry said. 

Since the 1960s, industrial dischargers have worked hard to clean up.  Now Spokane Riverkeeper is addressing more diffuse pollution sources.

“We need to connect folks upstream and downstream,” he said.

For the last 10 years, the City of Spokane has sought to clean up storm water, investing in an Integrated Clean Water Plan, so storm water and combined sewer overflows (CSO) go through pipes to the waste treatment plant and through rain gardens to be cleaned before returning to the river.

“Right now if more than a quarter inch of rain falls in 24 hours, it sends untreated sewer and storm water into the river,” Jerry said.

Spokane Riverkeeper is supporting the city’s efforts to use green technologies, increase the capacity of the waste treatment plant, install high-end filtration, increase the capacity of CSO tanks, and cut storm water. 

In the future, storm water will increasingly flow through grassy swales or into storm gardens, where plants filter out chemicals and absorb water, he said.  These measures will reduce storm water by 2017.

Another issue is “legacy PCBs” created by Monsanto and used in transformers and machines oils at places like Kaiser. They are also found in electrical equipment, garden hoses and light switch plates.

Like asbestos, PCBs were a “wonder product” at the time, Jerry said, but they cause reproductive disorders and cancer, and they have resisted breaking down. 

Even though PCBs were banned in 1979, there are still legacy PCBs in salvage yards, transformer oil spills, and oil in the soil around the aluminum plant.  Spokane Valley soil is porous, so PCBs can leak into the ground water.

The state and Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force seek to identify locations of PCBs and intercept their pathways into the river and aquifer.

There are also inadvertent PCBs found in pigments and dyes.  These can be found in things like yellow paints and paper.  They escape in the process of cleaning and recycling.

“It’s not about vilifying people or companies for discharging, but educating people to take responsibility to figure out how to stop discharges,” he said.  “I want my children to see discharges eliminated.”

To clean up garbage and litter, Spokane Riverkeeper, the City of Spokane, the Lands Council and others recently used a barge.

Divers used a barge to clean the upper section of the river, picking up a wagon wheel, bicycles, shopping carts, traffic cones, building supplies, pipe remnants, old machines and more. 

“More clean-up is needed,” he said.

They also worked this summer in the Blue Heron to pick up garbage once a week.

To increase access to the river for drift boats, rafts, kayaks, tubes, paddle boards, canoes and more, Spokane Riverkeeper also partners with recreational interests. 

“There’s a fine line related to safety and pollution and using the Spokane River for recreation.  Some people fear interacting with the river.  Although there are PCBs and heavy metals in sediments, the water is safe to swim and play in,” Jerry said.

“Water is a powerful natural force, so if people float on the river, they must follow local laws and wear personal flotation devices.  Unless expertly trained in whitewater, they must stay off the river when it is high and cold in the early spring and summer.

“People have been swept into trees and pinned under water by limbs, even if they wear life jackets.  We lose several people each year.  People must learn about healthy, safe, responsible river use,” he said. 

Jerry reaches out to youth.  He talks at schools and universities, and also seeks to speak to congregations.

Emerging issues are low water levels from climate change, oil and coal trains running along and over the river, and stabilizing bridge structures.

Jerry, who attended Shalom Mennonite/United Church of Christ Fellowship for several years, then turned to Buddhist meditation and teachings of compassion, now finds a spiritual connection when he is on the river and in nature.

Eco-justice, he said, is a concern for faith communities:  “The wealthy can buy clean fish from Alaska.  Immigrants, low-income folks and native Americans often eat fish from the river tainted with PCBs and methyl mercury.  The risk of eating chemically tainted fish falls on them.”

For information, call 464-7614 or 475-1228 or email

Copyright © November 2015 - The Fig Tree