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Chemical Freedom 

by Merla and Herb Barberie & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & ake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River are the lifeblood of Idaho's Panhandle. But an invasive aquatic plant -- Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) -- is threatening its health.

Last year, Bonner County paid AquaTechnix of Centralia, Wash., $1.7 million to put 400,000 pounds of herbicides in our waterways to eradicate EWM- the largest single chemical application in Idaho history.

Then last fall, our county commissioners formed a special group to review last summer's controversial program and make recommendations for this summer.

The Invasive Aquatic Species Task Force includes members from government agencies and citizen groups representing diverse philosophies of resource management. A decision is due soon. The county must submit its grant proposal by March 16 to secure funding from the Idaho Department of Agriculture. We are holding our breath that decisions will be made to keep Lake Pend Oreille an environmental jewel.

We need sustainable alternatives. Over several years, Bonner County has treated the lake and the river with a range of chemicals, including triclopyr, 2,4-D and fluridone, in an attempt to control milfoil. According to the county's post-treatment survey conducted last October, the results didn't meet the Department of Agriculture's rule that treatment methods eradicate 100 percent of EWM in one season.

This rule was unrealistic to begin with. The long-term solution should be to use methods that work with nature, not against it. And such methods are less expensive.

The impacts from herbicide use in the lake and river may not be apparent but are real. Dead milfoil promote excessive algae growth. When the plants die, they use up most of the oxygen in the water, which can suffocate fish. The algae bloom itself can be toxic to anything that feeds on it. According to residents along Lake Pend Oreille's Perch Bay, a blue-green algae bloom appeared on their shoreline at drawdown this year for the first time. Widespread blooms elsewhere could severely impact an already troubled fishery.

Then there's the unknown impact on wildlife. According to duck and goose hunters and longtime lakeshore residents, local mallards and geese that were born and raised here -- dabbler feeders on the milfoil -- disappeared from the lake for five or six weeks immediately after the 2006 herbicide application.

The milfoil died back deeper than the depth these birds normally feed to (remember, they don't dive underwater for food). In autumn, when the lake level was drawn down, migrating waterfowl fed on the remaining milfoil -- sprayed or unsprayed. We wonder if there is any connection between the herbicide use here and the hundreds of dead mallards found in southern Idaho.

In November, the Department of Agriculture spent $30,000 on a "Peer Review Process" to evaluate the state's Eurasian watermilfoil eradication program. Recognized aquatic plant management specialists from three states -- Florida, Minnesota and California -- conducted the review. The experts recommended: more citizen involvement and outreach; more independent quality control and assurance for contracted activities; and management programs to reduce environmental, recreational and economic impacts. They pointed to a "current lack of research/demonstration efforts ... to develop and evaluate management techniques for Eurasian watermilfoil." We would like to see the panel's program enhancements considered by the local milfoil task force and followed.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & contingent of Bonner County residents prefers an integrated-management approach to EWM control, encompassing a range of methods to fit different situations in the lake and river. Experimental methods include: growing larger numbers of tiny native weevils that eat only EWM; studying SolarBees, machines that naturally change the chemistry of the water making it unfriendly to EWM; using bottom barriers that smother all vegetation underneath specially-placed mats; hiring scuba divers to hand-pull plants around water intakes and those areas where families with small children swim; adding more boat-wash stations to remove milfoil from boat drives and trailers; and posting eye-catching and effectively placed boater education signs throughout the county.

The task force has until March 16 to come up with a grant application; we encourage members to listen with mutual respect, work toward building consensus in decision-making, and make non-herbicide choices wherever possible.

Merla Barberie served on the Bonner County Weed Advisory Board from 1996-2004; she is currently secretary of the Panhandle Environmental League of Sandpoint, a group working toward sustainable methods of EWM control. To enter a comment on the plans into the official record, e-mail [email protected]

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