by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n a sun-splashed August day five years ago, then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne waved his hand, Moses-style, over the sparkling waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

The waters didn't part, but they were the topic of a sermon Kempthorne delivered about how the lake is so pretty that it is the key to tourism and the economy of North Idaho. And how it should never, ever be associated with the expanded Superfund cleanup site dealing with toxic heavy metals washing down from the Silver Valley. Tourists wouldn't come if they thought this was Love Canal, he said.

Turns out one of those toxic heavy metals -- zinc -- makes the lake pretty. Dissolved zinc, which is at high levels in the lake, is toxic to chlorophyll and other minute aquatic life. Without those organic bits floating around, Lake Coeur d'Alene has amazing clarity.

Zinc has twice been measured above 250 parts per billion in the last four years and, in decades of monitoring, has never been below the Idaho standard of 40 ppb.

Pollution making the lake appear cleaner is one of the weird twists revealed by continued monitoring of Lake Coeur d'Alene.

With an estimated 83 million tons of metal-contaminated sediment the lake is too big to be dredged, so the key is watchdogging the metals (lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic) to keep them relatively inert. If nutrient levels rise and oxygen levels lower, the metals could leave the bottom and become soluble in water.

So aggressive monitoring is needed.

Two agencies that have been at an impasse for decades over funding lake cleanup -- the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) -- are on the verge of completing an LMP (Lake Management Plan) that both can support. They've been working for two years with a federally contracted mediator, J. Michael Harty of Davis, Calif., and the EPA to break a logjam. A draft LMP is expected by February.

This is almost a miracle in the wake of another development on that August day in 2002. The EPA, reacting to pressure from Idaho politicians and business interests, agreed to treat Lake Coeur d'Alene as if it were magically not part of the Coeur d'Alene Basin Superfund cleanup. But the devilish detail is that EPA won't fund lake cleanup if it's not part of a Superfund site.

For a lake management plan to have teeth, it needs money, says Glen Rothrock, lake program manager for DEQ, and Phil Cernera, lake management director for the Tribe.

DEQ and the Tribe just completed a period of jointly running five data stations, from June to early December (funds ran out Dec. 5), and are trying to find money -- more than $400,000 -- to do it again in 2008.

One approach is to ask the business interests for help.

So far this hasn't met with resounding success, Rothrock and Cernera say, but the process continues.

Four years ago, Ernie Stensgar, at the time chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, also had a Moses moment at the lakeshore.

The Tribe pledged $5 million to fund a lake management plan if other parties would step forward too, Stensgar said.

"Nobody has stepped up," current Tribal chairman Chief Allan said this week. "Having a mediator is fine and dandy but the (Tribal) Council hasn't budged off its original stance: We are not going to sign off on an LMP until money flows into it."

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.