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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
The area is clearly in the national spotlight and threatened by too much development. The national media has showcased the town of Sandpoint as one of the last, best places to live; do business; or simply to visit and enjoy recreational and cultural opportunities. Lake Pend Oreille is typically the centerpiece of all that attention. But at what cost?

The issue of potential impacts boggles the mind.

Watershed Awareness

  “Phenomenal”, “tremendous”, “incredible” are just a few of the superlatives June Bergquist uses to describe the increase in development activities along the waterways of Bonner County. For the past 13 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 and enforces state water quality standards in the region. Repairing damaged waters and keeping waters clean are the dual prongs of her mission.

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.

  “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 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. Pollutants, sedimentation and too many nutrients will upset the ecological balance of a lake resulting in a slimy shore, excessive weed growth in shallow bays and mucky, instead of sandy, lake bottoms. There’s also the possibility of deadly, blue-green algae blooms.

Storm Clouds Over
Lake Pend Oreille

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 it’s climate, it’s 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 were over.

  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 new, booming tourist economy for the many towns and communities around the lake.

  Today, 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 here from all over the country.

The area is clearly in the national spotlight and threatened by too much development. The national media has showcased the town of Sandpoint as one of the last, best places to live; do business; or simply to visit and enjoy recreational and cultural opportunities. Lake Pend Oreille is typically the 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 near-shore waters, shorelines, riverbanks and stream sides.

  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 and herbicide use everywhere. All of these activities introduce pollutants to streams that run downhill into the large basin that is Lake Pend Oreille.


  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 numerous calls each day, many from people requesting that she check out a potentially illegal practice.

  “What we rely on are people that
care enough to protect their waterways to call us,” Bergquist says. Encouraged by progressive homeowner associations and a vigilant citizenry that has become active in water quality protection, she believes that ultimately it will require personal responsibility to protect Lake Pend Oreille.

  “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 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 once given over to meadow or forest land 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.

  The Corps has narrow jurisdictional
regulatory authority - concerned with wetlands and activities occurring below the ordinary high water mark of navigable waters - so there is little
that Doherty can do, aside from bank stabilization, to help keep lawn chemicals and sediments out of the lake. 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?

A lake management plan has been developed and finalized by the Tri-State Council, in cooperation with Idaho DEQ, for the near shore 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 pollution of near shore waters.

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 12 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. Made up of everyday citizens; representatives from business, industry, government and Indian tribes; and environmental groups, the Council oversees the implementation of a management plan to reduce nutrient pollution in the entire watershed.

  The Council’s work, under the leadership of both Watkins and current executive director Diane Williams, has been quite impressive. The watershed was selected in 2003 as one of three recipients nationwide of a $1 million grant as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’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 12 years perhaps the most significant has been a Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Program. The goal is to substantially reduce nutrient loading 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.

  But Watkins says an increasing level of nutrients, particularly phosphorus, are still threatening the lake’s water quality and contributing to the growth
of algae and invasive aquatics like Eurasian milfoil. The lake’s near shore waters, Watkins says, will likely continue to degrade over the long term unless certain local actions and protective measures are implemented.

  A lake management plan has been developed and finalized by the Tri-State Council, in cooperation with Idaho DEQ, for the near shore 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 pollution of near shore waters.

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 12 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. Made up of everyday citizens; representatives from business, industry, government and Indian tribes; and environmental groups, the Council oversees the implementation of a management plan to reduce nutrient pollution in the entire watershed

It addresses water quality impacts and strategies to control pollution from storm water runoff, shoreline development, lakeshore homes and boating, as well as road building, logging and agricultural practices.
The plan also includes educational programs and water quality monitoring to ensure its success.

  The Council is also developing a plan for reducing nutrients and sediments in the Idaho section of the Pend Oreille River and is working with the State of Washington to create a single TMDL for the entire river. Still, Watkins says, “It’s only as good as the actions that follow.” Specific actions that the Tri-State Council is pursuing include 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 outside the area to enjoy the lake 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 water’s edge; anglers 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 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 pipedream. It’s tough enough to get them to read posted regulatory
signs.

  Nonetheless, there are a lot of things a person can do to keep the waterways clean. (See sidebar at right) 

  Oftentimes the simplest way to help is by being mindful of your impact and picking up after yourself: dismantle fire rings near the water’s edge, haul out your garbage and never dispose of harmful or foreign substances on or near the shore.

  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. He also encourages people to stay on the trails - 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.


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

  Hetzler says that if it were not for the
privately-contracted concessionaire at the Sam Owen Campground on the Hope Peninsula – a facility that hosts a day use area, group pavillion 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 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 a 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!
Spread The Word, Not The Weed

  With the increase of recreational boating in the watershed, the public also bears responsibility for one other major pollution problem – the growth of invasive 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 and to boat hulls. When carried from one place to another, the undesired plant part can establish roots and develop new growth. 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 has been a milfoil bloom so bad that Bonner County has been using herbicides to kill unwanted underwater vegetation in several heavily invested areas, including popular public swimming areas in both the lake and Pend Oreille River. Treating the nasty weed with chemicals has been only marginal successful . An alternative control is hand-dredging by divers – a slower and less efficient method, but safer.

  Meanwhile, the Tri-State Council and their TMDL partners are developing a project that would experiment with putting a fabric liner on the lake bottom in shallow waters around docks to hinder growth of the invasive weed.

  Doing nothing is unacceptable to many lakeshore property owners and to Bonner County officials, but it’s obvious that protecting Lake Pend Oreille’s water quality is not so simple. There are unsavory trade-offs to be made; but with more public awareness and stewardship, perhaps those trade-offs will become fewer.

   For many agencies and local groups, getting people to agree on what’s good for the lake in the long term is crucial.

  “Since I’m so passionate about the lake, I have felt responsible for making sure this plan comes about,” Watkins says. “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.”

HELPFUL TIPS ON HOW TO KEEP
YOUR LAKE CLEAN AND HEALTHY

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

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.

Don’t Flush Your Lake’s Future

Reduce your household and lawn wastes and safely dispose of them:

* Don’t dump household cleaners, solvents or pesticides into storm sewers. Dispose of 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.

-- Adapted from “Get in Tune To Your Lake”, Lake Management Program, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, Madison, Wisc. Used with permission.

 

 

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