Watersheds to Watch: WRIA 56 Hangman (Latah)

by Elan Ebeling
 

Hangman or Latah Creek, originates in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Idaho, and flows across the border into Washington, where it stretches through the city of Spokane and joins with the Spokane River. WRIA 56 encompasses the section of the creek in Washington State, starting from the border with Idaho.

The Hangman Creek Watershed has a long history of agriculture. In the early part of the 20th century, thousands of acres of forest were cleared for farming. Modifications to straighten stream channels, and new irrigation channels and ditches resulted in erosion, poor water quality and increased flash flooding that continues in the present day.

Agriculture continues to be the most significant use of land in the Hangman Creek Watershed (about 65%), and a century of heavy farming and population growth has taken its toll on water quantity, quality, and fisheries. According to the Hangman Creek Water Resources Management Plan, during the summer months, the average flow is below 3 cfs. Low flows also contribute to temperature and water quality issues. Hangman Creek has been described as “one of the most degraded waterbodies in eastern Washington State,” and fails to meet Washington State water quality standards for temperature, fecal coliform, and pH. In addition, the degraded water from Hangman Creek flows into the Spokane River every year along with heavy sediment from erosion, contributing to algae blooms and other water quality issues on the Spokane.

Although the creek’s native name Latah means “fish” in Nez Perce, few remain in Hangman Creek. As a result of the region’s long history of agriculture, fish habitat has gone through dramatic changes in the last century. While Hangman Creek once had healthy populations of native redband trout, salmon, and steelhead, the alterations made to vegetation patterns and channels to accommodate farming, as well as increased sediment and temperature in the river has resulted in heavily reduced populations of trout, and near nonexistent populations of other game fish.

These problems have been exacerbated by the proliferation of domestic permit exempt wells, and the over allocation of water rights. Ecology’s Water Availability Report states that the Department of Fish and Wildlife has limited most surface water sources in Hangman Creek through Surface Water Source Limitations, and that the majority of water has already been appropriated.

An instream flow rule for WRIA 56 is crucial to the future of Hangman Creek to protect critical fish habitat and combat worsening water quality, yet none exists. The Hangman Creek Watershed Planning Unit was unable to come to a consensus on exact values for instream flow recommendations by the time their 2005 Watershed Management Plan was published, but agreed that they wanted an instream flow rule. What’s more, their plan stated that they would notify Ecology if a consensus could not be reached in the next phase of planning, and expected Ecology to complete the process and enact a rule if necessary.

Despite the completion of an instream flow study on Hangman Creek, no rule exists for WRIA 56, and information on the current status of rulemaking is sparse. Although setting instream flows will not solve Hangman Creek’s severe pollution and erosion issues, it is critical to preserve what little water remains, as population growth predictions and increased demand for water resources only point to more issues in the future. As acknowledged by the WRIA 56 planning unit, rulemaking is ultimately the responsibility of the Department of Ecology. CELP urges Ecology to act now to develop an instream flow rule to protect the Hangman Creek watershed.

If you are interested in helping to secure protections for the Hangman Creek watershed, please email CELP at contact@celp.org.