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Chemical Lake 

by Jane Fritz & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n 28 years of living here, I have never known regular people without considerable political clout to act so powerless. Sandpoint residents who used to enjoy a refreshing dip in the lake after a long, hot day of work, and parents whose children spend their summer vacation days at the beach are exerting the only choice they can now reasonably make: swimming somewhere else besides Sandpoint City Beach. Other popular places of recreational swimming are off-limits, too, including Hope and Laclede. Tough government decision-making really snuck up on people even though the plan was in the works at the state level for almost two years. The outraged public watched in eerie disbelief while nearly 4,000 acres of Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River were treated with thousands of pounds of herbicides in less than one month by Bonner County thanks to a huge $1.5 million state grant. The enemy is Eurasian water milfoil, an aquatic invasive plant. Its very existence in our lake and rivers has put fear into the minds of those who do have power, and so they have declared war on the plants. Suddenly, life in paradise feels like life on some other planet.


Furthermore, the county's small, tangerine-colored warning signs say it's OK to swim and drink, but don't water your lawn for three days. So the confused public has abandoned popular swimming spots for non-treated areas on the lake like Talache Landing and Bayview. Smaller lakes and ponds and the Pack River are unusually crowded with swimmers choosing to beat the heat there. For a lot of local people, the extra expense of driving a car miles to reach these places isn't worth it. Instead they gaze out at Lake Pend Oreille before them, wonder how this happened and then go take a cool shower.


Concerned residents have been told more than once by Leslie Marshall and Brad Bluemer of the Bonner County weed department not to worry, that the chemicals being used to kill the targeted (and the unfortunate other) plants are "safe." Who are they kidding? Not these same members of the public who keep two natural food stores and two supermarkets in Sandpoint stocking their shelves with organics. Having power in the marketplace is one thing, but there's only one way an individual can protect the refreshing waters they've known and loved in the past from such pollution, and that's at the ballot box. It's too bad that the issue wasn't on the public's radar screen before the primary election last May, but you can bet it is now. After all, it's the largest single use of pesticides in the history of agricultural, chemical-dependent Idaho.


Rarely have I witnessed such unresponsive government. It's as if no county or state official (public servants all) is willing to listen to the general public's concerns or constructive ideas to use a better, non-chemical way to eradicate the milfoil. They refuse to lend any credence to dozens of citizens who have collectively spent hundreds of hours over the past two months -- every bit of it at their own expense -- researching and studying the impacts of invasive species and the array of intelligent biological and technologic controls that are used elsewhere. We could be proactive, but meanwhile powerboats on trailers at City Beach are dripping with milfoil to be spread to some other waterway.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & nd what about the visitors to the area who arrive in the "Best Small Town of the West" only to find out (or not to) that at the peak of the summer tourist season tons of chemical poisons have been dumped into the pristine waters that drew them here? The lake's allure is in nearly every magazine, real estate ad and piece of promotional literature about the Sandpoint area. A group of women from Canada, who vacation together in Hope every year, had just heard about the county's use of DMS 4 (2,4-D) at Denton Slough. "2,4-D?" one woman asked looking shocked. "It's banned in Canada ... where can we safely swim?"


You can bet again that there are no warning signs for tourists put out by the Greater Sandpoint Area Chamber of Commerce. If there were, they might have saved an Oregon mother from exposing her young son with neurological problems to the chemicals; the boy suffered multiple seizures after swimming in the Pend Oreille River. The family used the boat launch at the popular Riley Creek recreation area at Laclede and motored towards Priest River while the son wakeboarded. The day before, the chemical team hired by Bonner County had treated the river upstream from Riley Creek with Navigate, another 2,4-D formula. But the county didn't post any of their dull-colored warning signs at Riley Creek because by law they didn't have to; the herbicide treatment was a full quarter mile away. The case reported to Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is now under review, but it's hard to prove conclusively that the chemical exposure caused the three seizures the boy had that week, after a year of being seizure-free.


I swam at Riley Creek on the Fourth of July since it's close to home. I actually spent more time removing milfoil than I did swimming, but I won't swim there again. Since then the area around Riley Creek has been (or will be) doused with three different toxic herbicides -- triclopyr, fluridone, and 2,4-D, under the euphemistic names of Renovate, Sonar and Navigate. What a nice welcome mat for visitors, eh?


Then the county, in my opinion, did the unconscionable: they treated Denton Slough near Hope with a liquid form of 2,4-D. It's one of the prime (and last) abundant wildlife habitats left on Lake Pend Oreille because it is undeveloped and sheltered. It's been designated as an Important Bird Area by Idaho Fish & amp; Game, but after numerous calls to management, the agency simply looked the other way. I personally spent nine hours in three kayak trips over the past three weeks looking for Eurasian milfoil. I found a few sprigs and close to 99 percent native aquatic vegetation, some of it so thick as to provide ideal nesting material for breeding Western grebes, a bird of special status (highest conservation need) in Idaho. I also saw hundreds of small fish darting in and out of the plants and dozens of geese and ducks eating plants, and one moose munching away. It is home to many species.


Around 25 adults, supporters and members of the Panhandle Environmental League, also spent several hours on a recent Saturday looking for the noxious weed. "Show us the milfoil," has become their cry. Only Brad Bluemer and Aqua Technex, the company that identified the weed aerially last fall and that is earning close to $100,000 for treating Denton Slough, claim to have seen enough Eurasian milfoil underwater there to warrant treatment (even though they looked for it by boat recently). Not even Dave Reseska, an experienced diver who has removed the invader from around sailboat marinas, saw more than one plant after a two-hour underwater search.


Living in fear often causes people to act crazy, and crazed our local and state government leaders seem to have become around the issue of Eurasian water milfoil. While a recent Newsweek magazine touts the "Greening of America," the State of Idaho and Bonner County officials seemingly only see red. Poisoning the blue waters of Pend Oreille is not the answer.





Jane Fritz lives in Sandpoint and is author of a book on Lake Pend Oreille to be published by Keokee Books in early 2007.

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