The Hangman Creek Watershed – Contemporary Issues and Ongoing Solutions

May 31, 2016

This is the third in a series of four articles about watershed planning efforts in the greater Spokane River watershed, and the vitally important role land and water conservation plays in protecting our natural environment. This article highlights the Hangman Creek (aka Latah Creek) watershed.

The road trip south from Spokane is one of my favorites. Particularly on roads less traveled. Highway 27 heads south from Spokane and meanders through gently rolling hills, featuring the agricultural communities that connect with Hangman Creek: Rockford, Fairfield, Latah and Tekoa. The primarily agricultural landscape is colorful and varied, with interspersed forested areas. Basalt rock in the road cuts remind us we are in the Columbia Plateau. From Tekoa the roads heads southwest into the Palouse River drainage, through Oakesdale and on to Steptoe Butte, where an impressive view of the surrounding landscape is favored by local photographers. From Steptoe Butte one can look east to the Hangman Creek headwaters in the forested foothills of Idaho. It’s a beautiful drive.

But the beauty of the region belies many significant watershed resource issues. Forestry practices and urban/agricultural development have modified the landscape.

  • Upland forests and other ground cover that hold back winter snow melt have been cleared, resulting in spring flows that tend to be ‘flashy.’
  • Stream banks have been cleared for urban and agricultural purposes — these weakened stream banks erode easily, load the creek with sediment, and reduce shady areas to cool the water.
  • Natural stream channels have been straightened or constrained by development, causing additional erosion of the topsoil.
  • Livestock management practices in some areas allow for direct access to the creek and its tributaries, resulting in destruction of shorelines and introduction of contamination via “non-point” sources.
  • Municipal waste water treatment facilities contribute contaminants through discharge permits overseen by the state.

Just imagine, not long ago Hangman Creek had sufficient clean water to support cool water fish such as trout, salmon and steelhead. Today it is mainly a warm water fishery.

And it’s not only the creek that’s threatened. The groundwater in the watershed is primarily found in deep, horizontal “interflow zones” between the individual layers of basalt. These interflow zones are isolated by hundreds of feet of solid rock, and there is very little surface recharge to these aquifers. Recent studies indicate the water is more than 10,000 years old in places. And, as has been seen in other areas of the state, once those deep basalt aquifers are depleted, they’re gone for good.

So, how have local watershed planners addressed these problems? The Hangman Creek Watershed Management Plan was adopted by Spokane and Whitman counties in 2005, following 4 years of intensive study and planning. The process was led by the Spokane Conservation District and involved private landowners, conservation groups, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and government planners. The plan included a strategy to address five areas of interest: water quantity, water quality, habitat and land use planning, watershed restoration, and public education. It’s important to note that watershed restoration and land conservation have a significant and positive effect on water quality and habitat. All watershed systems are connected, after all.

Every watershed is unique, and management plans reflect the basin character. A consistent theme, however, is that land and water conservation are essential in protecting watersheds. And organizations like Inland Northwest Land Conservancy play a critical role in that process.

So what’s been done in the Hangman Creek watershed? To address the water quantity concerns, the Spokane Conservation District and various agricultural communities are implementing water conservation and irrigation efficiency projects; and with help from Spokane County they’re monitoring ground water levels. A unique project by The Lands Council in California Creek is assisting with beaver dam development high in the watershed in order to retain surface water and reduce early season flows.

Watershed restoration activities are ongoing throughout the basin by the Spokane Conservation District and The Lands Council, improving both riparian habitat and water quality. These activities include relatively simple projects involving riparian planting along stream banks to more involved actions such as placing new trees, off-creek livestock watering and fencing, and stream bank regrading. Many miles of riparian habitat have been improved, and projects like “Willow Warriors” have been very successful in engaging the public. On the public education front, The Lands Council has been reaching out to schools like Upper Columbia Academy and Liberty High School, and Spokane Conservation District is continually promoting water resource protection as a core mission activity.

And there’s land conservation. Inland Northwest Land Conservancy has three easements in the basin including the Ralph Hein Family easement and the downstream Bryant-Sayre easement, both near Kentuck Trails Road. These easements total almost 500 acres and are critical in preserving the local character of the watershed.

No doubt, the Hangman Creek watershed has its challenges. But with your help, and with the cooperation of partner organizations, Inland Northwest Land Conservancy is making a positive difference!

Please contact me at if you have any comments or questions. I look forward to hearing from you. See you in the next issue!