Record Low Flows Mean It’s Time to Adapt

I’m never far from our river, in whatever form it takes. This fall as I was waxed my skis, I dreamed of turns in deep Copper Basin, Bitterroot Mountain powder. Layers and layers of clean Idaho snow; our river in its most primordial form.

But as the winter drug on and the mountains were buffeted in disappointing pinwheels of rain and warm winds followed by freezing spells, then more warm rains, I knew this was bigger than a stillborn, backcountry ski season. I began to bite my nails as I pondered what it all might mean for our beautiful river in the coming summer heat.

Sure enough, this season is one for the record books. In fact, the early summer Spokane River flows are the lowest recorded to date. We are roughly at one tenth the normal flows. We have never been here before. These low flows certainly mean we should probably be riding bikes when we can and cutting our carbon footprint if we care at all about glaciers, snow packs, kids, rivers, streams and fish. Lots of us are making an effort on that front. It also means we might start valuing water and snow in new ways that help us change our habits – no more washing the car on the street or watering the sidewalks for hours at a time. Nature is changing, life is changing. Like it or not, the river we love and our relationship with it is changing.

For the first time ever, I found myself talking to state biologists about the best course for wild trout conservation and the possibility of a summer closure on angling. Rafting companies are not running their boats through the Bowl and Pitcher at a time when they are usually giving folks the ride of their lives. The Riverkeeper struggled with our annual rafting trip – the big rapids just didn’t show up for the event.

In late June I stood on a hot sidewalk with the owner of a local river rafting company, and we pondered the future. He smiled and said, “Well, I guess this means we adapt.” Wisdom, no doubt, borne from years of working with nature. He mentioned that they were moving to tube-based trips rather than the usual raft trips. It’s probably time we all think along the same lines.

So while we hope for more snow next year, and while we fight to reduce our carbon footprint and water use and do what we can to help those people and critters struggling with the consequences of global climate change, we should also think about how our relationship with the river might adapt and continue. You might not be able to raft or fish this summer the way you normally do, but you have the chance to explore other ways of getting out on and appreciating the river that the low flows present. Ride an inflatable kayak or stand up paddleboard instead of a raft. Fish in the early morning hours and keep those trout in the water. Enjoy river tubing – it’s a lot of fun and these low flows are tubing friendly. We here at Riverkeeper and other volunteers will have a chance to get at the garbage on the riverbed that was inaccessible in normal high flows. And please do what you can to support securing water for nature by practicing water conservation. See you on the River!

Jerry White Jr. learned to fly fish at a young age and has been exploring Northwest rivers by boat and on foot ever since. In 2014, he signed on as the Spokane Riverkeeper, turning his lifelong passion for our local river into a full-time job.

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