Storm Clouds Over Pend Oreille

by Jane Fritz

Soon after his arrival in Kalispel Indian territory in 1809, explorer and fur trader David Thompson recognized the intrinsic value of the Lake Pend Oreille watershed. His memoir, The Travels of David Thompson, written in his later years, included this prophetic statement: "The impression of my mind is, from the formation of the country and its climate, its extensive Meadows and fine Forests, watered by countless Brooks and Rills of pure water, that it will become the abode of civilized Man, whether Natives or other people."

Those "other people" arrived in droves by rail or wagon 70 years after Thompson and immediately exploited the area's natural resources. Forested hillsides were laid bare, mountains were mined and the pristine rivers, streams and lakes were used as the lifeblood of commerce. Over time, however, a different resource ethic began to emerge consistent with the national environmental movement of the 1970s. Passage of the Clean Water Act and other protective legislation set a new course of action for how Lake Pend Oreille and its tributary rivers and streams would be treated in the future. The days of the huge logging drives on water would likely never happen again.

The natural resource industries, especially logging and agriculture, still drove the local economy, but gradually the natural beauty of the area moved to center stage, and tourism and service industries developed. The expansion of Schweitzer Mountain Resort, promotion of the arts and the lake's aesthetic and recreational values all contributed to a booming new tourist economy for the many towns and communities around the big lake.

I arrived in Bonner County in the late '70s along with many other artists, back-to-the-landers, corporate America escapees and other transplants who were looking for a simpler life, one more in harmony with the natural world. Those of us who still live here know how lucky we've been.

There were still the challenges of destructive resource development to counter, but perhaps the past quarter-century has been the most favorable time to live around Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille. The exception may be the more primitive era of the aboriginal peoples. I recall listening to Kalispel/Coeur d'Alene elder Henry SiJohn, who would describe tribal life around Lake Pend Oreille as "utopian."

But now, nearly 200 years after the arrival of that first outsider, dramatic changes are again occurring. The forested mountain lands, grassy meadows and shoreline around Lake Pend Oreille are a magnet for people coming from all over the country. The area is clearly in the national spotlight and threatened by too much development. Recent issues of Sunset and Outside magazines, (and a rumored upcoming issue of National Geographic Traveler) have showcased the town of Sandpoint as one of the last, best places to live, do business or simply to visit and enjoy its recreational and cultural opportunities. Lake Pend Oreille is typically a centerpiece of all that attention. But at what cost?

After a region is "discovered," it suffers numerous impacts. Both the people who live and work here and the agencies that regulate and control such impacts are concerned about the future of the Lake Pend Oreille watershed. They're particularly worried about the shorelines, riverbanks and streamsides.

Potential impacts to the lake from two major proposed projects -- the Rock Creek Mine in Montana and the Sandpoint Byway construction along Sand Creek -- have many people concerned enough to support organizations that oppose the projects. Then there's the regional issue of fluctuating lake levels caused by hydroelectric dams here and elsewhere that troubles people concerned with the fate of native fisheries.

These issues are exacerbated by the more immediate and often daily threats that have a cumulative effect on the integrity of the Lake Pend Oreille watershed, including the development of shoreline properties, herbicide treatment for invasive aquatic weeds and increased recreational demands, just to name a few. There's also logging, road building and maintenance, agricultural practices of all sorts (cows standing in wetlands adjacent to the lake, for example), ATV trail abuse, herbicide use everywhere... polluted streams run downhill into the large basin that is Lake Pend Oreille. The issue of potential impacts boggles the mind.

Watershed Awareness -- "Phenomenal," "tremendous" and "incredible" were just a few of the superlatives June Bergquist uses to describe the recent increase in development activities along the waterways of Bonner County. For the past 11 years, she has been the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality's regional water quality compliance officer for Idaho's five northern counties. If you look at an Idaho map, that's a lot of surface water for one person to monitor. In a regulatory spectrum that ranges from the proposed Rock Creek Mine to oil and gas spills from the boating public, Bergquist is the person who responds to and enforces state water quality standards in the region. Repairing damaged waters and keeping waters clean are her missions.

"Lately, the list of permit requests reads like a Who's Who in the world of the rich and famous," Bergquist says. Rarely will she deny a project; instead, she'll work with a homeowner or developer to change the project in order to meet the DEQ rules and standards for ensuring water quality. Controlling growth is not her charge, she says; that is the responsibility of county and city decision-makers.

With increased shoreline development, she also is seeing an increase in illegal waterway activities. Run-off from poorly managed construction sites, digging around the shoreline without a permit and dumping hazardous wastes into the lake are just some of the issues she investigates. Pollution and too many nutrients will upset the ecological balance of a lake, making it more difficult to support fish. In some cases, the water can get so bad as to make human users sick, too.

Bergquist admits that none of the nine regulatory agencies that deal with impacts to the lake and its watershed can keep up with on-the-ground enforcement. She fields around 10 phone calls a day herself, many from people requesting that she check out a potentially illegal practice.

"What we rely on are people who care enough to protect their waterways to call us," Bergquist says. She believes that ultimately it will require personal responsibility to protect Lake Pend Oreille. She is encouraged by progressive homeowner associations and other vigilant citizens who have become active water-quality protectors. To support that effort, she has put together a helpful brochure to identify which state or federal agency to call with environmental questions or complaints, or to obtain permit applications for constructing things like docks.

"It all amounts to being good land stewards," she says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the federal agency that handles permits for building those boat docks, as well as filling or dredging wetlands and stabilizing shorelines. Mike Doherty is the Corps's environmental resource specialist for Lake Pend Oreille. He says his Coeur d'Alene office is the busiest regulatory office in the entire state. He's seen miles of shorelines that were once meadowed or forested, especially along Oden Bay and the Pend Oreille River, converted to numerous individual home sites. Unfortunately, when Doherty arrives on-site, he'll usually find a bulldozed and sterile shoreline or a manicured grass lawn right down to the water. The chemical fertilizers and herbicides that it takes to maintain such a carpet of green inevitably wind up in the water, he says.

"It's not good for the lake, and it's not good for wildlife habitat," Doherty says. "There needs to be a change in mindset to leave something natural."

To begin with, he believes the real estate community could do more to encourage the retention of native vegetation along the shoreline, but salability and the marketing trend seems to prefer grass lawns to the water's edge. Doherty thinks it will ultimately take county ordinances to force real estate developers to protect Lake Pend Oreille's water quality from such practices. The Corps has narrow jurisdictional regulatory authority -- wetlands and activities occurring below the ordinary high water mark of navigable waters -- so there is little that Doherty can do to help keep lawn chemicals and sediments out of the lake besides bank stabilization. The Corps has already worked with municipalities to stabilize the shoreline and prevent erosion between Sandpoint east to Ponder Point in Ponderay. They've prevented sedimentation and improved water quality -- but do people really prefer rocky to sandy beaches?

Too Many Nutrients -- Ruth Watkins wears a silver pendant around her neck cut in the shape of Lake Pend Oreille. It's a talisman of sorts, marking the work she has done for the past 10 years, first as executive director and now as project director for the nonprofit Tri-State Water Quality Council. The council's mission is to improve and protect the water quality of the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille river system, which spans Montana, Idaho and Washington and includes Lake Pend Oreille. It was created following a three-year study jointly conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the three states' water-quality agencies. The study resulted in a management plan to reduce nutrient pollution in the watershed. The Tri-State Council, comprised of everyday citizens and representatives from business, industry, government, Indian tribes and environmental groups, formed to oversee the implementation of this plan.

The Council's work, under the leadership of both Watkins and new director Diane Williams, has been quite impressive. The watershed was selected last year as one of three recipients nationwide of a $1 million grant as part of EPA's National Watershed Initiative. According to the Council newsletter, it was chosen because the watershed partners demonstrated the ability to achieve on-the-ground environmental results in a short timeframe.

Among its many accomplishments over the past 10 years, perhaps the most significant Tri-State Council project has been a Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program. The goal is to substantially reduce nutrient loading from major municipal and industrial polluters and other sources along 200 miles of the Clark Fork River in Montana, just upstream from Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille. The Clark Fork River provides most of the lake's volume.

Despite these successes and substantial pollution reductions, Watkins says an increasing level of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, are still threatening the water quality of Lake Pend Oreille and contributing to the growth of algae and invasive aquatics like Eurasian water milfoil -- so much so that it has been designated a "threatened" resource by the state of Idaho. The lake's nearshore waters, Watkins says, will likely continue to degrade over the long term unless certain local actions and protective measures are implemented.

A draft lake management plan has been developed by the Tri-State Council, in cooperation with Idaho DEQ, for the nearshore waters of Lake Pend Oreille. It is known formally as a TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load), which will set the thresholds for nutrients that are causing the lake's nearshore waters to become polluted. Local, state and federal agency representatives who were on the planning team spent more than two years drafting this plan; Mike Doherty was a member of the team, and June Bergquist provided input. The TMDL addresses water-quality impacts and strategies to control pollution from storm water runoff, shoreline development, lakeshore homes, boating, as well as road building, logging and agricultural practices. The plan also includes educational programs and water-quality monitoring to ensure its success.

Public input to the draft plan formally ended in July, but according to Watkins, in the coming months, the team will hold additional public meetings and make presentations to city and county officials, Realtors, building contractors, sportsmen's associations, lakefront property owners and other groups to educate them about the TMDL and its implementation. A final plan will be issued later this fall. The Council also plans to develop a TMDL for reducing sediments in the Idaho section of the Pend Oreille River with hopes to extend the plan to include the rest of the river in Washington.

Still, Watkins says, "It's only as good as the actions that follow." Specific actions that the Tri-State Council will pursue will be city and county ordinances, water quality monitoring to target high-priority areas, and suggesting better ways for agencies to manage the resource. The key, she adds, is educational outreach to lake users.

Leave No Trace -- So what if you, the reader, don't live in Sandpoint or Bayview or spend your summer in a vacation home on Lake Pend Oreille, but perhaps come from Spokane to enjoy the lake as a boater or a fisher on the weekend? What impact is your recreational experience having on the lake's water quality?

Watkins admits that this is the toughest group of folks to pinpoint for educational outreach. More and more people from other places are visiting Lake Pend Oreille: as weekend tourists with jet-skis in tow; RV travelers who park along the waters edge; fishers who cook their catch over campfires on the shore; and bicyclists, canoeists and kayakers who camp overnight. Reading the license plates in the parking lots of recreational public access areas is a good way to identify where these visitors are coming from. But getting them to voluntarily follow the guidelines of a water-quality plan may be a pipe dream. It's tough enough to get them to read posted regulatory signs.

But there is a lot a person can do to keep the waterways clean. (See "A Happy Lake," page 17.)

As an avid long-time canoeist and lakeshore camper, I can attest to the increasing disrespect visitors show for our spectacular lake and its shoreline. The two-day trips I took by canoe this summer to the Green Monarchs area of U.S. Forest Service-managed public lands had me tidying up the lakeshore before I could enjoy it. My friends and I dismantled one fire ring a few feet from the water's edge. (Wood ash is great for growing garden vegetables, but when it washes into the lake with the next rain, it only contributes to the nutrient loading pollution of the lake.) We put out a blazing fire another careless camper had left burning in a huge driftwood log only a few feet from the edge of the forest -- and just 15 feet away from a Smokey Bear sign warning campers to "put fires out, dead out." We hauled away plastic milk jugs, beer and pop cans, and a lot of other garbage left lying on the beach. We even bagged up the dog poop. The point I'm trying to make here is the role individual responsibility plays in keeping Lake Pend Oreille and its beaches clean.

According to Greg Hetzler, recreational forester for the Sandpoint Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, it's what every lake user ought to do. It's also why the Forest Service promotes "Leave no trace" and other low-impact camping ethics in educational brochures and over its Web sites. Although Hetzler doesn't discourage people from camping in undeveloped areas, he encourages visitors to stay in developed campgrounds that provide toilets and appropriate fire rings placed back from the water. "Pack It in, Pack It Out" is his other mantra. He also encourages people to stay on the trails, because doing so protects native vegetation in addition to keeping sediments out of the lake.

"When we find Sandpoint featured in magazines, we're going to see growth. That's a given," Hetzler says. But the federal budget for funding recreational management of public lands is lagging way behind the demand for services. In fact, every year for as long as Hetzler can remember, there has been decreased funding from Congress. He says it's because all natural resource agency funding comes from discretionary monies. As a result, there is only one staff person responsible for upkeep of the many USFS recreational sites around Lake Pend Oreille. This person can barely attend to all six developed recreation areas, let alone get to the rest of the public shoreline that is undeveloped but heavily used. There are no plans for developing additional sites.

Hetzler says that if it were not for the privately contracted concessionaire at Samowen Campground on the Hope Peninsula that hosts a day-use area, group pavilion and 81 campsites, the Forest Service would not be able to operate that park.

"It's discouraging. We deal with it everyday. But we're a can-do group of people," Hetzler says, explaining how his department manages. But it couldn't do so without the self-policing help of the public, including ATV clubs, horse riding groups and kayakers. Educating these groups is part of Hetzler's job, and it's critical work. Without the public's help, he says, the Forest Service will continue to fall behind on what needs to be done.

Attention Boaters! -- With the increase of recreational boating in the watershed, the public also bears responsibility for one other major pollution problem -- the growth of invader weeds. Tansy and spotted knapweed along the shoreline and Eurasian milfoil in the shallow bays of Lake Pend Oreille and its tributaries are choking out native vegetation, and in the case of the lake, choking docks and making swimming dangerous, especially for small children. The smallest weed fragment can attach to boat props, fishing gear, oars and paddles in addition to the underside of boats. When carried from one place to another, the undesired plant part can establish roots and develop into a new plant. It infests waterways like a cancer, spreading easily and growing quickly, crowding out native plants and diminishing fish habitat. Personal responsibility is again the key.

But educational signage asking boaters to clean their crafts on shore after lake and river use has not been a significant deterrent in the spread of the unwanted species. Nor has asking boaters to stay out of milfoil growth areas, especially around docks in front of lakeshore homes.

The result is that milfoil growth has become so bad that Bonner County recently used nasty herbicides to kill unwanted underwater vegetation in two areas -- Thamas Slough near Priest River and the area between Memorial Field and the Highway 95 Long Bridge in Sandpoint. A third application site was planned for Ellisport Bay near Hope, but winter kill was significant enough to keep the milfoil down so chemical treatment is unneeded.

It isn't the first time the county has used chemical treatment at sites around the lake. Last year, Perch and Oden Bays at Sunnyside were treated with a contact herbicide -- diquat bromide. But the roots of the milfoil were not killed, so the weeds grew back. This year, the county plans to experiment with an aquatic version of the systemic herbicide triclopyr, called Renovate 2. The chemical will be taken up by the entire plant. The county plans to post signs to keep people out of the water for at least 12 hours and also to restrict fishing and irrigating. The popular swimming area of Dog Beach in Sandpoint, however, is in the quarter-mile impact zone. In previous years, few people opposed chemical treatment. On the other hand, according to Brad Bluemer, the weed supervisor, "thousands of people, mostly lakeshore owners, have demanded the help" from the county. But there's growing opposition from other lake users who would like to find alternatives to dumping chemicals into the lake.

"This is a miserable project," says Bluemer, "but doing nothing is unacceptable to us." He says that a non-chemical alternative -- diver dredging -- used at Albeni Cove near Priest River also failed to contain the invasive weed.

The irony of all this is that June Bergquist from DEQ has to permit the county's use of triclopyr and that Ruth Watkins of the Tri-State Council, who needs to work with the county as a member of her TMDL team, really needs to go along with the county's plans, too. It's obvious that protecting Lake Pend Oreille's water quality is not simple. In our imperfect world, there are unsavory trade-offs to be made. But with more public awareness and stewardship, perhaps those trade-offs will become fewer.

"Since I'm so passionate about the lake, I have felt responsible for making sure this plan comes about," says Watkins. "But really making it happen is a responsibility that we all share and should bear on various levels, because one person can't do it. One group can't do it. It really has to be in the heart of the community to want to protect the lake."

A Happy Lake

Be Aware of Your Actions -- What you do on and around Pend Oreille -- or any lake -- directly affects its water quality and can heighten problems like algal blooms, invader weeds, erosion and sedimentation, diminished wildlife habitat and loss of natural shoreline.

Please, Don't Feed the Lake -- To slow water runoff and minimize nutrient overloading:

* Maintain natural vegetation on hills and banks, or terrace steep slopes.

* Leave a buffer zone of native vegetation near the lakeshore.

* Minimize chemical applications of fertilizers. Better yet, use compost. Eliminate pesticide use on your lawn and garden. Cut or hand pull weeds.

* Don't burn lawn wastes or sweep the leaves into gutters; compost them.

* Direct runoff from rooftops and paved surfaces to where it can soak into the soil.

* Minimize soil disturbance during construction and re-vegetate bare areas as soon as possible.

Flushing the Future -- To reduce your household and lawn wastes and safely dispose of them:

* Don't dump household cleaners, solvents or pesticides into storm sewers. Discard hazardous contaminants properly.

* Recycle motor oil and other automotive wastes.

* Pick up animal waste and bag for trash pickup.

* Maintain septic systems and make sure gray water drains to the septic system and never directly into the lake.

* Conserve water, so less wastewater reaches the lake.

We Need Wetlands -- Wetlands filter out pollutants and sediments, act as a natural barrier against shore erosion and provide food, shelter and nursery areas for fish and wildlife. Here's how to protect them:

* Eliminate the need to fill, dredge, drain or alter wetlands and weedbeds.

* Protect fish and wildlife habitat.

* Control erosion in wetland areas, sediments suffocate plants and fish eggs.

* Avoid using motorboats and jet skis in shallow areas to prevent stirring sediments, spreading invasive weeds or leaking oil and gas in an already stressed environment.

* Many aquatic plants and algae are crucial to the health of a lake. Learn which ones are most beneficial to fish and wildlife. A lake is not a swimming pool.

* Keep livestock out of wetlands.

* Work to control non-native aquatic plants like milfoil. Do not use chemicals in the lake, but hand harvest and compost the plants.

* Become a shoreland/wetland steward. Make sure any development on or near wetlands is properly permitted.

* Shoreline development can obscure the natural beauty of the lakeshore. Design structures that are in harmony with the natural features. Keep piers, docks to a minimum and build your cabin or home back from the water.

* Look ahead! Get involved in planning and zoning to protect your lake.

-- adapted from "Get in Tune ... To Your Lake," Lake Management Program,

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Publication date: 09/23/04

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