Priest Lake is a prime summer destination for many in the Inland Northwest — with cabins and resorts dotting its shoreline and a steady water level maintained by the Priest Lake Outlet Dam, which separates the lake from the Lower Priest River.
Built in the 1950s, the dam makes the lake great for recreation by allowing only a small amount of warm surface water to flow off the lake and into the river. But that warm water has raised the river's temperature, creating an unsuitable habitat for native species, including native coldwater trout species, such as bull trout and cutthroat trout.
A variety of research studies from local universities and Idaho Fish and Game have investigated possible solutions to cool down the Lower Priest River, including constructing a bypass to move cold water from the bottom of the lake to the river, instead of using warm surface water.
Many of these studies found that a coldwater bypass would be beneficial for the river while still maintaining the lake's recreational level. Yet groups largely composed of people who own homes around the lake's edge rallied to oppose the construction of any such bypass and urged state lawmakers to support Senate Bill 1021, which passed the Senate 27-7 and is now in the House.
The bill declares that Outlet Dam is the only structure authorized to move water from the lake to the river, and that any other structure, such as a coldwater bypass, would need approval from Idaho's Legislature and governor.
Stop the Priest Lake Siphon argues that the bypass would significantly lower the lake's volume, and harm "this popular and highly used area" at excessive costs to taxpayers.
Idaho Fish and Game says it hasn't proposed constructing a bypass yet.
"We are in the brainstorming phase and bringing the thoughts on it and ideas before the public, but there is no project that has been proposed," says T.J. Ross, a spokesperson with Idaho Fish and Game.
As part of its own brainstorming, the nonprofit conservation group Trout Unlimited developed a collaborative Priest River Watershed Group several months ago to involve all of the region's stakeholders and organizations to find a solution to the warming waters of Priest River that everyone could agree on.
"The overwhelming majority of people I've heard from who are against this are all homeowners that surround the lake, and the vast majority of them don't live in Idaho, these are second homes for them," says state Sen. Ron Taylor, a Democrat representing Blaine County just north of Twin Falls who voted against the bill. "I think there's a little bit of a concern on their part as to what this project might do."
Taylor says that SB 1021 is "redundant, and it's putting that extra layer of government on something that doesn't really need to be there. ... I think that it's more of a local issue that I think should be resolved by getting all of the local interests together and discussing a path forward." ♦