Use of herbicides last summer in Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River near Sandpoint created a firestorm of protest among residents who feared dire health effects on swimmers, drinking water, fish and aquatic plant life.
Groups were formed to advocate fighting the weed by means other than chemical. Injunctions were threatened and civil disobedience became rowdy summer theater. Proponents of more natural controls pointed to diver dredging and the use of weevils as examples that have been shown in studies across the nation to merrily munch milfoil down to its roots.
The state Department of Agriculture, however, is bound by law to spend its money ($5.6 million this year) on eradication, not research, says Matt Voile, ISDA's noxious weeds program manager. So we will see no weevils, as the insects and other biological controls were knocked out of Bonner County's proposed treatment program last month.
Two weeks ago, Bonner County Commissioners voted 2-1 to accept $1.8 million from the state to treat an expected 1,900 acres of milfoil infestation. Herbicides are the main control, but diver dredging and fabric mats along the lake bottom are also in the mix.
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe has targeted 600 acres in the southern end of Lake Coeur d'Alene.
Smaller Hauser Lake last weekend unveiled a rinse station -- the first in Idaho -- for use by boaters and jet-skiers. The rinse station is expected to be enough to preclude the use of herbicides, the Hauser Lake Watershed Coalition announced.
Chemicals are the media lightning rod. Sandpoint was the flash point last year, when Bonner County announced herbicides such as 2,4-D would be used on nearly 4,000 acres of infestation in Pend Oreille lake and river.
Leslie Marshall, noxious weeds manager, was singed in the protests. In the aftermath she urged the formation of a task force where various points of view could be explored.
"Let's let people have a say and come up with some different ideas," Marshall says. "It's a wonderful group, we're definitely diverse, and the group did a really good job."
In keeping with the collaborative efforts, Marshall and other county officials say herbicides will not be used this summer in sensitive areas, such as near beaches and popular swimming holes.
Todd Crossett, one of two new county commissioners elected last fall, agrees the task force was "an excellent move. A step in the right direction." He praised the 12-member group for working -- sometimes on a weekly basis -- through the winter and drafting a thorough milfoil plan that used a range of tools, from chemicals to weevils, and added important components to survey the spread of milfoil and assess the effectiveness of the controls.
The plan, even as parts of it were rejected last month by a state ag department review committee in Boise, was impressive enough that the review committee recommended the state adopt the segments on surveys and assessments, Crossett says.
As a result, Dr. John Madsen, a nationally noted milfoil researcher for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in Sandpoint this week to begin a state-funded milfoil survey.
"That's excellent," says Dave Lamb, lake ecologist for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, at the news of Madsen's survey. Lamb adds that the early appraisal of last summer's herbicide applications on Chatcolet, Round and Benewah lakes at the south end of Lake Coeur d'Alene appear to show good results.
As with Pend Oreille, a fuller assessment will be made during the next month as water warms and aquatic plant growth accelerates.
Crossett says the state needs a bigger picture. "We don't want the state to remain in a reactive mode, especially when we are depending on millions of dollars in public funds that may not be there from year to year. We need a long-term plan to evaluate and adjust as we go."
Despite efforts at collaboration, county officials expect another summer of protest over herbicides. Crossett, for one, notes attention is finally being paid to "the front end" of the problem, and land-use ordinances are being toughened to address the nutrient runoff that feeds the milfoil in the first place.