Water Meets Politics

Water Meets Politics

We are certainly living in an odd time. We are in the midst of a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, we have people relocating to our area at what seems to be an alarming rate, and our political climate is more divisive than I can remember. All of this, believe it or not, has an effect on water quality. Our water, Lake Pend Oreille in particular, is not only a place to boat, swim, and fish, but is also a major source of drinking water for many in our community.

A friend of mine who happens to be the mad professor of all things “lake” says, “lakes are like human beings, they’re born, they have a good life, and then they die”, oddly enough with or without human activity.  Succession of a lake is caused by the filling of sediment and organic matter. Human introduction of nitrates and phosphates accelerate the decomposition of organic matter, dramatically decreasing the life expectancy of the professor’s lake. All humans depend on freshwater for survival. Yet while our impacts on such an essential resource can be devastating, it’s difficult to dedicate the amount of  time and energy necessary to protect it. 

Drawing representing the filling in of a lake from the Vermont Lay Monitoring Program Manual

For 12 years, the Lake Pend Oreille WATERKEEPER (LPOW) has worked to protect the water quality of the Clark Fork/Pend Oreille Watershed and keep it swimmable, fishable, and drinkable.  And it’s not always easy, believe me!  As we all know water tends to flow downhill and eventually to the ocean.  However as time goes on it seems to run more and more into a dam of political bureaucracy. Sometimes it gets through the dam a bit cleaner, unfortunately many times not.  Occasionally we get to use existing laws to our advantage, but more and more it seems industry and developers get to either, skirt and/or successfully lobby to change existing laws. Poorly constructed environmental policies inevitably end up contributing to the slow degradation of our waterways.

Whether or not your water gets through the dam a bit cleaner, stays the same, or ends up even more polluted or degraded in the process, largely depends on our local political climate.  Yes, we have the EPA, Army Corp of Engineers, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Lands, Fish and Game, etc… but where most of the benefit, or damage, is done is at the local level with codes adopted by jurisdictions in close proximity to our waterbody.  And it doesn’t even have to be that close. Everything that happens on Schweitzer essentially ends up in our lake, period.

We have multiple municipalities in our area that affect the water quality of Lake Pend Oreille, such as Priest River, Dover, Sandpoint, Ponderay, Kootenai, Hope, and Bayview. All of which, with the exception of Bayview, are in Bonner County.  Common sense would indicate that a thoughtful and coordinated effort to preserve water quality amongst all the stakeholders would give us our best chance at producing comprehensive policies enabling us all to preserve one of our most valuable resources.  

Algal bloom in Boyer Slough at the north end of Lake Pend Oreille in 2020. Algal blooms are often caused by the presence of excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients can come from water treatment facilities or stormwater runoff.

Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be the case.  Over 90% of the shoreline of LPO is in Bonner County. It’s current leadership, while speaking to the values of water quality, is seemingly headed in the opposite direction. The County will soon be holding workshops and hearings in an attempt to allow development within the current shoreline setback. This is one of the only codes that helps us to protect our waterways by preventing development within our sensitive shoreline areas by maintaining a vegetative buffer, a critical element in protecting water quality. 

The shoreline setback has been in place for more than 40 years. In 2008 the County formed a task force, with a variety of stakeholders to discuss, debate and develop specific language for new Environmental Standards for Title 12 of the Bonner County Code.  While much of the science pointed to an increase of the existing 40 feet setback, including an extensive list of counties in the Northwest produced by DEQ that indicated the average setback was 100 feet, the 40 feet setback remained.  This new effort on the part of our County Commissioners to ignore scientific rationale in favor of additional development needs to be watched carefully and the voices of our local citizens need to be heard if we have any hope of protecting our waterways into the future.

In stark contrast the City of Sandpoint is seemingly taking some steps in the right direction. By adopting Chapter 16 under Title 7 of the City Code for Watershed Protection, and subsequently approving the Little Sand Creek Watershed Management Plan, the City is acknowledging its responsibility in protecting our valuable drinking water sources.  The City is also planning for a state of the art stormwater management system for Memorial Field as well as committing significant resources to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility. This proactive approach is exactly what’s needed and as water quality advocates we appreciate any effort made in this direction.

So often in the urban centers of our nation one person’s voice can so easily be drowned out amongst the Goliath of political power and bureaucratic red tape. We must always remember that one of the many benefits of living in a small rural community is that everyone’s voice can be heard and everyone can make a difference.  Remember you are only a phone call or letter to your legislator, commissioner, mayor or city council member away from helping protect a resource that is becoming more and more scarce: clean water.  Whether you choose to support LPOW or another organization whose mission is to protect water for the benefit of us all, it’s important to support those organizations as well as inform the youth of today, the leaders of tomorrow, how critical our natural resources are to our long-term well being.

People often ask me, in my dream of dreams, what would the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper look like in 10 years.  My hope would be that the efforts of LPOW wouldn’t be needed.  That everyone in our community became Waterkeepers insisting their voices be heard, standing firm and advocating for what we all own and is rightfully ours, clean WATER. As one of the leading voices on water quality advocacy, of course we’ll be here if needed, but with your added help we can focus more of our energy on educating the next generation of environmental stewards and less on project specific issues.  We feel honored and appreciate all the community support we’ve received to date and look forward to working with each and everyone of you to protect this magnificent waterway

To help protect Lake Pend Oreille and the surrounding watershed, consider donating to our organization and becoming a member or volunteering for our citizen science Water Quality Monitoring Program!