Several changes involving the water levels at Lake Pend Oreille came to a tilt last summer, including a proposal to decrease post Labor Day lake levels for the survival of bull trout. Manipulating lake levels became a heated issue, and many advocates remain concerned over having lower lake levels.
The issue has led members of the community to voice their interests in protecting the lake’s recreational use, economy, ecology and wildlife.
Lake Pend Oreille’s water levels have been regulated by Albeni Falls Dam since its construction in the 1950s. The dam is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the power generated is marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).
According to Robyn MacKay, Manager of Operations Planning at BPA, the issue at Pend Oreille is three-fold. Advocates for Lake Pend Oreille, such as Idaho’s Lakes Commission, want to maintain higher lake levels in the spring and fall. In the spring, having a higher lake level depends on the Corps’ flood risk assessment, she said.
The Army Corps of Engineers aims to be in the summer operating pool of 2062-2062.5 ft. by the end of June or early July, Kristian Mickelson, a hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps, said. Having a higher level earlier increases the chance of flooding.
“If a storm hits that produces large inflows, it could cause flooding downstream, and upstream of Albeni Falls Dam, it could cause loss of life and property damage,” Mickelson said.
The second issue is the possibility of having higher lake levels through September. BPA and the Corps are working with the Lakes Commission to possibly extend the lake’s “full pool” level of 2062 ft. further into the month of September.
Since 1996, the lake’s winter level has been maintained at either 2055 ft. or 2051 ft., depending on a decision tree developed by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission to test which elevation is more advantageous for kokanee spawning. The lake’s water elevation was held at the level where the fish were spawning. Some years, the lake would be held at 2055 ft., while others it would drop to 2051 feet.
This year, the Idaho Fish and Game removed that request because they determined there was no correlation between having a higher lake level and the fish’s ability to spawn, John Barco, a Policy Analyst for the BPA said. This means the lake can return to its original winter elevation and the BPA can implement flexible winter operations, where it can alter lake levels based on energy needs. The operations concern advocates for the lake. This year the Corps will maintain the same level for winter because of the BPA-funded Clark Fork River Delta Restoration project.
Over the years, lake level fluctuations have increased shoreline erosion particularly in the Clark Fork River Delta. When the BPA flexible winter operations were proposed, the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) was concerned over how inclusive the BPA’s Environmental Impact Statement was. Although the BPA performed an environmental assessment, the ICL felt that it was not sufficient and sued the BPA to perform a more in-depth analysis. The case was heard before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in October, and the ICL is awaiting the court’s decision.
“The delta is eroding at the alarming rate of about 15 acres a year. The flexible winter operations … wasn’t given the level of scrutiny we thought necessary to determine whether or not it would exacerbate the erosion problem,” said Susan Drumheller, North Idaho Associate for the ICL.
The Albeni Falls Dam’s design prevents the bull trout from escaping the warmer lake temperatures. The dam has endangered the fish’s survival because it has no fish passage solution, Deane Osterman, the Executive Director of Natural Resources for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, said. The fish haven’t been harvested for decades, and his small staff manually relocates the fish.
“Right now, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians is the fish passage solution for Albeni Falls Dam,” Osterman said. “Every single bull trout we have tagged with an electric or acoustic tag that comes through the dam and that we release below the dam has died because of the thermal stress. That river system is increasingly a warm one.”
“In the past, the fish have adapted to that warm water by moving back downstream out of their native tributaries and moving up through Pend Oreille [River] and into the lake. That’s a live fish stream that we want to restore so that Kalispel people can have access to that trusted resource,” he said.
The Kalispel Tribe had an agreement with the Army Corps to modify the dam’s lake operations after Labor Day of 2014 so the fish could reach cooler temperatures. Many people feared this could mean an earlier drop in lake levels in the summer season. That agreement has since been altered, and the Kalispel Tribe is currently investigating alternative solutions for fish passage.
According to Ford Elsaesser, chairman of Idaho’s Lakes Commission, Lake Pend Oreille reaches its full pool level by July. Stakeholders in the Lakes Commission want to see that level remain higher longer for a full recreational season. An elevated lake level would help sustain and grow the lake’s tourism economy.
“We’d like to see a full pool for the month of September before [BPA] starts any drawdowns so that the lake is in full use for the month, which is one of our best months weather-wise,” he said.
The Lakes Commission also would like to have winter lake levels higher than the 2051 ft. mark. The BPA shouldn’t automatically lower the lake level to 2051 ft., he said, without having a specific need.
A meeting this month with a gubernatorial representative, Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Army Corps, BPA and the Lakes Commission is the next step to negotiating the management of the lake.
The Lake Pend Oreille Alliance formed in 2014 specifically to address drawdowns to Lake Pend Oreille.
“Many of our 500 plus members are concerned about the impact to recreation, wildlife, property, scenic beauty and our local economy,” said board member Ralph Sletager. “The law says that normal pool of 2062.5 feet should be maintained for about six months. In recent history, it’s only at those levels for a couple of months.”
The group is asking that Albeni Falls Dam be operated more in line with its original charter, keeping normal pool from Memorial Day to Oct. 1, Sletager said.
“This issue is vital to all of North Idaho’s waterways including Lake Coeur d’Alene,” he said. “We have a legal and historical right to assure our water is managed for scenic beauty, recreation, navigation and commercial uses, not just for power generation that most often flows to other states.”
The Lake Pend Oreille Alliance is a non-profit organization that encourages all policy that maintains mandated levels on Lake Pend Oreille for recreation, wildlife and property, and actively opposes any efforts to take additional water. More at www.savependoreille.org.