Tribe bows out of lake management efforts

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LOREN BENOIT/Press file The sun rises over Lake Coeur d’Alene, as seen from an airplane piloted by Zachary Pearson.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little has called for a third-party assessment of Lake Coeur d’Alene’s water quality while the Coeur d’Alene Tribe is backing out of the longstanding joint effort.

In a letter to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, Little is seeking a review of all the data compiled by the Tribe and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality since 1996, when they began collaborating on lake management.

“I want to know if a qualified third party believes we have sufficient data so we can be confident that we fully understand the lake’s condition,” Little wrote.

For the past two decades, the state and Coeur d’Alene Tribe have worked together to track toxins in Lake Coeur d’Alene and compile periodic management plans that showed ways to reduce pollutants.

But after all those years of documenting in two separate lake plans how to clean Idaho’s third-largest water body, the Tribe, which owns the lower third of the lake, is bowing out of the process.

Inaction and a seeming unwillingness by the state to initiate change that would result in a cleaner lake prompted the Tribe’s decision, said Phil Cernera, who directs the Tribe’s lake management department.

“The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has basically removed the lake management plan as a solution,” Cernera said. “This isn’t working. We need to do something else.”

In a letter to the state earlier this year, the Tribe laid out its reason for backing away from the lake management plans it was instrumental in producing between 1996 and 2009, when the latest plan was released.

Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar said in the letter to Gov. Brad Little and Region 10 EPA administrator Chris Hladick that the plans have not helped reduce pollutants such as phosphorus or the potential threat of heavy metals lying at the bottom of the lake.

Instead, Stensgar said in his letter dated April 5 that the plans “focused on status quo, non-regulatory and under-funded land management concepts.”

Agriculture, as well as homes with leaking septic systems, and municipal sewer plants along the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene rivers add phosphorus and other fertilizers into the water that result in high algae and aquatic plant production. When lake plants die in the fall, they decompose, which drops oxygen levels. Reduced oxygen levels in turn are conducive to the release into the lake’s water column heavy metals that are otherwise dormant.

The process has been ongoing for decades and is getting worse, Stensgar said, but there exists no regulation to stem it.

Heavy metals on the lake bottom are a result of a century of mining in the Silver Valley. Mine pollutants were flushed from the Coeur d’Alene River and settled as solids, primarily in the bottom muck in the southern half of the lake. But the toxins become part of the water column during periods of low oxygen.

“Without the oxygen, you mobilize the metals,” Cernera said. “If you keep the phosphorous out, you keep the oxygen levels higher, but we’re seeing phosphorus levels increase, and we’re seeing a lack of oxygen.”

Although the Silver Valley was recognized as a federal Superfund site, Lake Coeur d’Alene — in part because of heavy lobbying by municipalities and the local recreation industry — was not included in Superfund funding. It is technically part of the larger Superfund site.

As part of the process to remain free of Superfund funding, lake quality assessment and periodic updating of a lake management plan by both DEQ and the Tribe was required.

Avoiding all impacts of a Superfund designation for the lake is not helping it, Stensgar said.

“Prior to adopting the 2009 (plan), the Tribe had made it clear that at best this (plan) would still leave our lake as one of the largest hazardous waste repositories in our nation,” Stensgar said. “A repository that would forever need to be managed and remain a potential future threat.”

Although trigger values that reflect dangerous pollutant and oxygen levels have been met or exceeded, Stensgar said, it has spurred no clean-up actions or remediation discussions.

“In 2016, our previous eight years of water quality data was compiled and compared to the trigger values and declining water quality trends were evident,” he wrote. “In fact, two trigger values had been exceeded.”

It was understood that if trigger values were being approached or exceeded, actions would need to be taken to change the trajectory of declining water quality, he said.

In his response to the Tribe, Gov. Little said the results of a third-party assessment would help guide the state on how to proceed.

“Such an assessment would inform the state’s position relative to the efficacy and desirability of continuing with [a lake management plan] and any other decisions related to protecting the lake,” Little wrote.

Little said the state has requested help from the Environmental Protection Agency to assess the previous work.

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