by Cara Gardner

While we ski, scurf, swim and splash in North Idaho's beautiful lakes during the summer, most of us take the high water levels for granted -- that is, until Labor Day, when suddenly the water is siphoned down by the powerful force of the dams. September is often one of the best summer months in the Inland Northwest, but as some of our lakes shrink away, our opportunities to play in the water do, too. Lakeside communities watch recreation and commerce simply drain away.

In late July, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne named five business and community leaders from Sandpoint to be on the seven-member board of the newly formed Lake Pend Oreille Basin Commission (LPOBC), a group designed to help manage water-quantity levels in Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River, Priest Lake and Priest River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will appoint a voting member, as will state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. The State of Montana will appoint a non-voting board member. Established by the Idaho State Legislature, the new commission is part of a change in how management decisions are made concerning North Idaho's lakes.

"The legislation created this commission so that it would be able to provide a local perspective on the management of issues in the [Pend Oreille River] Basin," says Mark Snider, press secretary for Kempthorne. "[The commission] is modeled after what we're doing with the Coeur d'Alene Basin Commission, to have citizen input in the management of water quality and quantity. Those are concerns facing the people."

The governor expressly likened the new LPOBC to the CdA Basin Commission, which was founded in 2001. The CdA Basin Commission is made up of representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Environmental Quality, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, the State of Washington and county commissioners from Kootenai, Benewah and Shoshone counties.

The LPOBC doesn't have representation from neighboring counties or states, nor does it include the EPA or tribal leaders. So who's on the LPOBC?

"I've been involved in litigation for the last seven years about the [Pend Oreille] lake level that's controlled by the dam at Albeni Falls," says Ford Elsaesser, a Sandpoint attorney and the newly appointed chairman for the commission. "It's a constant concern for the people of Bonner County that there doesn't seem to be a lot of input and control over [water quantity and quality] issues. We prevailed on our local legislators to pass a bill signed by the governor that creates a commission of citizens and members from Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an official body that represents the people and the state in regards to the [River Basin]."

While the CdA Basin Commission has spent its first two years stabilizing stream banks, furthering ecological studies and conducting water analysis, Elsaesser says the LPOBC isn't going to focus on water quality -- at least, not yet.

"The commission's jurisdiction includes [water] quality and quantity, and obviously there are a lot of water quality issues being raised," Elsaesser says. "But it's not something we want to bite right into. I think it'd be silly for the commission to duplicate the issues that are already being pushed really hard."

Surprisingly, environmental groups in the area agree.

"We're already working on water quality -- we've been working on it for 10 years," says Ruth Watkins, executive director for the Tri-State Water Quality Council, based in Sandpoint. "They were set up to deal directly with the water levels and the make-up of the commission is more geared toward that. I can't imagine the group selected would have the political wherewithal to enact policy like what's currently underway."

Watkins says she looks forward to working with the commission, but notes that their purposes should stay separate. "There's opportunity for water quality and quantity to affect each other, so it'd be good to [have] interaction between our group and theirs. But I see with the focus on the lake level, they're going to have their own battles and challenges."

Lake level is an issue -- each year we have less time," says Linda Mitchell, co-owner of Lake Pend Oreille Cruises. Mitchell, along with Elsaesser, is one of the five Sandpoint residents whom Kempthorne has appointed to the new commission.

"There's been constant give-and-take as to what the appropriate winter lake level is," says Elsaesser, "and the consensus is that it should be no more than four or five feet lower than in the summer."

Elsaesser and Mitchell say water level is a huge concern for the community of Sandpoint because when lake levels drop, so does business. Water levels in the Pend Oreille River Basin are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers at the Albeni Falls Dam, located just west of Priest River. Elsaesser says the Corps drops the lake level by 11 feet each winter, making it "unusable for a lot of folks," and preventing kokanee salmon from spawning, which reduces their population.

"The last two years, [the Corps of Engineers] has been leaving the lake level up due to a court order," Mitchell says. "But this year, the court order is not in place."

Elsaesser says the commission plans to work with the Corps of Engineers to keep water levels up during the month of September.

"It'll be interesting to know whether [the Corps of Engineers] are willing to hear our interests and the impact on our economy and our fish," Mitchell says. "I hope we can all come to an agreement."

Though designated by the governor to work on water quantity issues, the freshly appointed board members of the LPOBC have their work cut out for them. The commission held its first public meeting on Tuesday, August 19. Hoping to establish themselves as a formidable -- and amiable -- negotiating team, the commission invited representatives from the Corps of Engineers.

"We want... a formal response on how they're going to do the drawdown," Elsaesser says.

"When we call, we never get clear answers from them," Mitchell claims.

The Corps of Engineers says adjusting water levels isn't a simple matter.

"Lake Pend Oreille is a part of the whole Columbia River system," explains Patricia Graesser, spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers' Seattle-based division. "It's one dam and one lake in a complex system that's all interconnected. What we do is not done in a vacuum. What we do there will affect the whole system, so [we] work to manage that."

Graesser says the Corps of Engineers wants the commission to listen to their side, too.

"We also operate recreation facilities on the lake, so obviously recreation is important to [us]," she points out.

Graesser says the Corps of Engineers tries to make it to the winter low level around Nov. 15.

"This isn't a legal requirement," she notes, "but we do this by the request of Idaho Fish and Wildlife, so as not to strand the kokanee when they are spawning."

When asked why lake levels go down quickly after Labor Day, Graesser says she hopes the commission can begin to understand "all our legal requirements in which we operate the dam."

Elsaesser isn't positive the commission will have enough teeth to generate answers out of the jargon.

"No one's clear at this point as to what the reach of this commission is," admits Elsaesser. "But there's no question that that lake is the economic engine that keeps things going up here."

Publication date: 08/21/03

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