Organization plans to increase outreach, expand cleanupSeptember 14th, 2017
Spokane Riverkeeper’s Jerry White Jr. is a former teacher and environmental advocate who spends his days working to make the Spokane River a cleaner, more accessible place for those of us who live and work alongside it.
White himself is called the Riverkeeper sometimes, but he’s program director for the Spokane Riverkeeper organization, the nonprofit with a mission to protect and restore the health of the Spokane River.
“My job is to oversee the program and make sure we’re following a strategic plan that addresses the needs of both the public and the river,” he says.
White says the organization’s efforts to maintain the health of the river include trash cleanup, native fishery protection, education, water quality testing, regulation of nonpoint source pollution (pollution that comes from several sources rather than one identifiable point), and shoreline protection.
In order to accomplish its mission, White says Spokane Riverkeeper uses a combination of education, collaboration, and—when necessary—litigation.
“A large part of my job is making sure the Clean Water Act is followed,” he says. “That means monitoring the river’s water quality, reviewing and commenting on discharge permits, and watching for other sources of pollution.”
The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law governing water pollution. The act’s objectives include restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters by preventing both point and nonpoint pollution sources; providing assistance to publicly owned treatment facilities for the improvement of wastewater treatment; and maintaining the integrity of wetlands.
“We want to make sure we’re holding dischargers accountable for the waste being dumped into the river,” he says.
Originally from Oregon, White moved to the Cheney area when he was young and now lives in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. He holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Western Washington University, and a master’s degree in teaching from Whitworth University.
White spent 13 years teaching at Spokane-area schools before deciding to become an environmental advocate with the Seattle-based Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
He returned to teaching at Shaw Middle School until accepting his current position with Spokane Riverkeeper in 2014.
“I’d spent a lot of time volunteering and advocating for the Spokane River, and often blended the study of ecology into my classes,” he says. “Eventually, I realized I wanted to do that full time.”
Founded in 2009, Spokane Riverkeeper is a program of the Center for Justice, a legal advocacy organization with offices at 35 W. Main downtown.
Spokane Riverkeeper is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance Movement, an international environmental organization started in 1966 that now includes over 300 organizations and affiliates worldwide.
White says Spokane Riverkeeper’s staff includes himself, one part-time employee, and several interns.
“We share staff and resources with the Center for Justice, as well as Gonzaga Law Clinic,” he says. “We also collaborate with community organizations and businesses on various projects, because we understand collaboration is how things get accomplished within a community.”
White says Spokane Riverkeeper also is involved in the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force, an organization that works to bring the river into compliance with water-quality standards.
As part of maintaining water quality, White says, Spokane Riverkeeper helps monitor pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of manmade chemicals known to cause cancer in certain animals and are considered probable human carcinogens.
“PCB in particular is a persistent and nasty pollutant that’s found in both stormwater and in fish,” he says. “Fish are a big driver in our current clean-up efforts, because it’s a problem when these pollutants bioaccumulate in our food.”
He says the organization is hoping to invest more into understanding the nature of wild trout and other native fish populations to help ensure their survival and recovery.
In an effort to further study water quality and its effects on fish populations, White says Spokane Riverkeeper also is working on a temperature study funded through Citizen Science, Western Native Trout, and the Charlotte Martin Foundation, as well as a phosphorus study being conducted through Eastern Washington University.
“Phosphorus is kind of a demon nutrient,” he says. “It’s essential to plant life, but too much of it can cause a reduction in oxygen, which hurts fish.”
When it comes to shoreline protection efforts, White says the organization is currently focused on Hangman Creek, also known as Latah Creek.
He says the shores of the creek have been stripped of natural vegetation that would act as a filter for water. Without its natural vegetation, the creek has become clogged with sediment, fertilizers, and other pollutants, he contends, which then make their way into the Spokane River.
“We’re trying to educate people on the importance of shore vegetation in maintaining clean water,” he says. “The law is there, but the culture needs to change.”
White says the organization currently is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that its previous cleanup plan for Hangman Creek was insufficient.
“We’re in ongoing talks with the EPA, with the goal of developing a better cleanup plan,” he says.
White says the organization also monitors pollution entering local waterways due to uncovered coal transport and was part of a recent lawsuit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe that was settled last November.
“Our goal in that instance was mainly to help educate the public on the dangers this transport poses to the river and organize them to attend hearings and be a part of the protection process,” he says.
As a result of the suit, BNSF Railway Co. agreed to fund a two-year study into the feasibility of covering coal trains to help prevent pollution, as well as invest $1 million into conservation or restoration projects in Washington. The company also agreed to clean up and removal of coal at specific areas near water bodies.
Of all its projects, Spokane Riverkeeper is probably best known for its trash cleanup efforts, which run from March to November.
White says volunteer groups of between five and 25 people from local organizations and businesses sign up to participate.
So far this year, Spokane Riverkeeper has seen 300 volunteers collect more than 5,000 pounds of trash in and around the Spokane River, he says.
“Our cleanup area is still very Spokane-centric, but we’re working to expand to cover more areas both up and downstream,” he says.
Within the greater community, White says the organization thinks highly of the city’s efforts in recent years to upgrade and build new combined-sewer overflow tanks, which work to redirect storm water to treatment before it enters the river.
“We’re happy with the city’s work on CSO tank upgrades, but it’s a long-term project that still has a lot of issues to address,” he says. “Certain areas, particularly on the outskirts of the city still aren’t part of the CSO system.”
White says he’d also like to see the city take on additional green infrastructure projects, which use landscape architecture and plants to collect and naturally filter storm water. He says the organization is encouraged by plans for such projects beginning to take shape in areas like West Central.
“Their neighborhood has some green infrastructure projects that are being discussed now,” he says. “I’d expect those plans could be in place by as early as next year.”
White says Spokane Riverkeeper also is involved with the city of Spokane’s plans to create a new boat launch near Glover Field, in the Peaceful Valley neighborhood west of downtown. The site currently includes a parking lot, a playground, a baseball diamond, and the Peaceful Valley Community Center building.
“We’ve seen some of the early designs and provided some input,” he says. “It all goes back to our mission of providing more public access that’s environmentally friendly.”
White says the organization also continues to work on education and outreach, speaking with local groups and visiting area schools like Spokane Montessori, and Shaw Middle School.
“We’re trying to educate people of all ages about the issues the Spokane River watershed faces,” he says. “We’ve got a good relationship with Spokane Parks and Recreation, and the West Valley Outdoor Learning Center, and we’re working to lay the foundation for expanding educational outreach to more local schools.”
The organization is planning a fundraiser event called Spoken River, which will take place next month at the Mukogawa Fort Wright Institute, at 4000 W Randolph Road. The event will feature readings from local authors Maya Zeller, Shawn Vestal, and Jack Nisbet.