1. Introduction

Since time immemorial, we the Coeur d’Alene people, the “Schitsu’umsh”, meaning the “Discovered People” or “Those who were found here” in Coeur d’Alene language, lived and played on and around the lake that now bears our name. Since time immemorial, we reaped a bounteous harvest from the lake and the surrounding lands which allowed us to survive and prosper. And we held, and still hold, the lake and surrounding lands as sacred, as the source of spiritual as well as physical sustenance. Since time immemorial, we lived in harmony with the lake and the land and only took what we needed and thus did not cause damage to these resources.

With the coming of the European and American settlers to Schitsu’umsh country in the late 1800s, things began to change. People began to take things from the lake and the land that they could sell; things that were needed or desired by the growing local communities, the nation and the world – beaver pelts, timber, foodstuffs (including agricultural commodities) and, more recently, metals. As populations grew, the demand for supplies grew and damages to the lake and landscape began to occur. And with the dawning of the 20th Century, the need for electricity brought the construction of dams which generated hydropower but also changed the lake and surrounding riparian lands. At some point, we the Schitsu’umsh could no longer survive simply on what we could capture or collect from nature; we became absorbed in the commercial world that had come to surround us.

But we are still here, and we have not lost the reverence for the lake and lands that sustained our ancestors for untold generations. We, and the staff we hire, are intent on protecting the goodness that remains in this area, and on restoring what has been lost. But the challenges related to this restoration are great and we know that they must have the help of all people who have a stake in this lake and these lands, to and including the State and Federal governments.

Below are summaries of some of the most important issues facing us and other users and managers of Coeur d’Alene Lake and its watershed.

2. The Legacy of Mining Wastes in the Coeur d’Alene Basin

The Bunker Hill Superfund site in the Coeur d’Alene River Basin is the second largest Superfund site in the nation. A century of water discharges and air emissions from mining and smelting activities has left several thousand acres contaminated with heavy metals. The main contaminants were antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, and zinc. Among these, lead was the most significant and dangerous in both levels of contamination and impacts on human health. Primary smelter operations, mine and mill tailings, and waste rock that were discharged to the Coeur d’Alene River or its tributaries, or confined in large waste piles on-site caused most of the pollution in the area. Approximately 1100 acres of the flood plain were heavily contaminated by tailings from mining operations early in the twentieth century. Another significant source of pollution was redistribution of smelter and mine wastes throughout the area due to reworking of soils by the river, wind, and anthropogenic activities.

The Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex was listed on the National Priorities list in 1983. The Coeur d’Alene Basin is one of the largest areas of historic mining operations in the world. Since the late 1880s, mining activities in the Upper Coeur d’Alene Basin contributed an estimated 100 million of tons of mine waste to the river system. Communities in the Upper Basin were built on mine wastes. Until as late as 1968, tailings were deposited directly in the river. Over time, these wastes have been distributed throughout more than 150 miles of the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane Rivers, lakes, and floodplains.

The area was designated as the Bunker Hill Mining and Metallurgical Complex Superfund Site in September 1983. The Site is divided into three Operable Units (OUs): OUs 1 and 2 focus on the 21-square-mile area Bunker Hill “Box” located in the areas surrounding the historic smelting operations. OU 1 focuses on the populated areas of the Box; OU 2 focuses on non-populated areas. EPA has been working since the early 1980s to remediate areas immediately surrounding the former smelter facilities. A significant portion of these cleanups have been completed. There are plans for upgrading the Bunker Hill Mine Central Treatment Plant which treats acid mine drainage.

In 1998, EPA initiated a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study to address contamination for the entire Coeur d’Alene Basin outside of the 21-square-mile “Box”. OU 3 (the “Basin”) consists of mining-contaminated areas of the South Fork Coeur d’Alene River (the Upper Basin), the lower Coeur d’Alene River (the Lower Basin), Coeur d’Alene Lake and the downstream Spokane River. A plan for addressing certain on-going human health and environmental risks posed by the historical mining contamination was developed through a collaborative process among EPA, governments with jurisdiction in the Basin, and the public. The Basin ROD was issued in September 2002.

Because of the apparent movement of mining wastes down the Coeur d’Alene River and into Coeur d’Alene Lake, many scientific studies have been performed to quantify the extent of the contamination, to determine the extent of environmental and health risk posed by the contamination and to determine ways of controlling or managing this risk. While there is much that is not well understood in this complex system, the current consensus is that the metals-laden sediments cannot realistically be removed from the lake and therefore, must be managed in place. The management of metals contamination (that is the control of their release into the overlying water) relates to the management of the nutrients that enter, or are already stored in, the lake.

For more information on this issue, please visit the Natural Resources page and the US EPA Bunker Hill / Coeur d’Alene River Basinwebsite and the Ongoing Nutrient Enrichment section below.

3. On-going Nutrient Enrichment (Eutrophication)

In response to long-term concerns over water quality degradation, a nutrient loading study was conducted in 1975, which classified Coeur d’Alene Lake as “mesotrophic”, or moderately productive, and recommended that additional studies of the sources and magnitudes of nutrients be performed (US EPA. 1977. National Eutrophication Survey Working Paper #778). In 1991 a lake management study was initiated. The primary concerns centered around increases in nutrients (which can result in increased plant and algae growth and decreased water clarity and dissolved oxygen levels) and the heavy-metal contamination of lakebed sediments. The study was funded and conducted cooperatively by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Idaho Division of Environmental Quality. It had three objectives:

  1. Determine the lake’s ability to receive and process nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in order to devise means to prevent declines in water quality
  2. Determine the potential for the release of heavy metals from lakebed sediments into the overlying lake water
  3. Develop a lake management plan that will identify actions needed to meet water quality goals

The findings of the 1991 study were detailed in a report by Dr. Paul Woods and Michael Beckwith titled Nutrient and Trace Element Enrichment of Coeur d’Alene Lake, Idaho:Water Supply Paper #2485(requires DjVu plug-in to view). In summary, Coeur d’Alene Lake was found to be classified as “oligotrophic” (exhibiting low levels of productivity) during 1991-92, on the basis of total phosphorus, total nitrogen and chlorophyll-a (a measure of algae production). In fact, phosphorus and niotrogen loadings in 1991 – 92 were roughly half of what they were in 1975. In spite of this, however, the lake developed a substantial hypolimnetic dissolved-oxygen deficit (low oxygen conditions in the deep waters) during the late summer of 1991. A review of historical studies indicated that earlier loads of nutrients and oxygen-demanding substances were much larger than those measured during this study and, thus, capable of producing the earlier deficits.

Coeur d’Alene Lake was found, overall, to have a large assimilative capacity for nutrients and, thus, unlikely to develop an anoxic (no oxygen) hypolimnion unless nutrient loads to the lake increase substantially. One area where water quality is affected by high biological productivity and trace-element enrichment of the lakebed sediments is the area south of the mouth of the Coeur d’Alene River and north of Conkling Point. Dissolved-oxygen concentrations there were low during October 1991 and might eventually reach anoxia if biological productivity in the adjacent southern end of the lake were to increase substantially. This area of the lake may be the most likely to release trace elements from the lakebed sediments after an anoxic hypolimnion developed.

Based on the results of the 1991 study, the Coeur d’Alene Lake Management Plan was drafted in 1995 by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, IDEQ and numerous other stakeholders (see the draft Coeur d’Alene Lake Management Plan). This Plan was developed in three major stages. At first, a lake management plan workgroup used the results of the 1991-92 lake study to identify water quality issues and suggest potential goals and methods for management of the lake’s water quality. Then, an intensive program of public involvement and education was undertaken to encourage the public to select their preferred goals and management actions. The preferred goals and management actions were then written up and an environmental evaluation was prepared to describe the positive and negative effects of the preferred actions. Finally, a monitoring plan was designed to assess the effectiveness of the management actions for attaining the management goals.

The preparers of the Plan acknowledged the apparent improvement in water quality between 1975 and 1991. This was attributable to the enactment of environmental laws, a growing societal awareness of environmental issues and the implementation of pollution controls and “best Management practices” for stormwater runoff, wastewater treatment, agriculture and timber harvest areas. Plan preparers also acknowledged that Coeur d’Alene Lake was not a homogenous system – there were specific geographic areas of concern as well as specific water quality issues. As a result, the lake system was divided into:

  1. The near-shore zone (where water depths are less than 20 feet)
  2. The shallow, southern zone which is south of the mouth of the Coeur d’Alene River, and includes the shallow lakes (Benewah, Chatcolet, Hidden, and Round)
  3. The lower reaches of the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe Rivers that are affected by backwater from Coeur d’Alene Lake
  4. The deep, open water zone which is north of the mouth of the Coeur d’Alene River
  5. The principal method to involve the public in the lake management planning process was the formation of five technical advisory groups (TAGs). The five TAGs were formed to discuss the water quality issues, goals, and management actions associated with the following topics: forest practices, agriculture, development (with a recreation subgroup), southern lake, and rivers. More than 80 people participated in the TAGs; they represented local, state and federal agencies, industry, environmental organizations, plus community and business associations. Each group had a facilitator who was a member of the lake management plan workgroup. Each TAG prepared detailed lists of recommended management actions which were included in the draft Plan.
  6. The 1994 Coeur d’Alene Lake Management Plan was a far-reaching document and was widely supported but it had two obvious and severe limitations – it lacked funding and an enforcement arm to ensure that it could be implemented. In addition, there was no organized comprehensive lake water quality monitoring program in place to adequately track lake water quality trends.

And so, the Plan languished on numerous shelves in numerous offices.

During the years since the publication of the 1994 Plan, knowledge of the lake and river system had been refined, portions of the Plan had been implemented, and changes in legal and regulatory conditions, as well as remedial actions, had occurred, all of which impacted the appropriateness, ‘implementability’ and effectiveness of the original Plan. Also, since the Plan was first released, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the State, and the Tribe have determined that the most effective way to manage metals-contaminated sediments lying on the bottom of Coeur d’Alene Lake was through effective nutrient management. This determination is supported in the Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS).

Because of a widely-felt need to further implement the original Plan, the stakeholders, led by the Tribe and IDEQ reconvened in 2002 to produce a Plan Addendum (current draft addendum available via this link). This Addendum presented the following recommendations relative to nutrient management in the lake:

  • Action Items outlined in the revised Management Action tables should continue to be implemented. This will entail having these Action Items considered a priority to land responsible managers.
  • A new list must be developed to outline specific projects to implement that will reduce nutrient loads to the Lake’s watershed.
  • Funding must be identified to assure the restoration project list and action items identified in the tables of the Plan will be conducted.
  • The monitoring Plan presented in this addendum should be funded for the life of the EPA clean up.
  • A staff should be hired to oversee the implementation of the Plan.
  • The Plan should be endorsed and adopted by the Basin Commission to be used in the development of the Basin-wide work Plan that will be implemented over the next 30 years. Yearly funding Proposals developed by the Commission should include LMP.

Unfortunately, as of May 2005, no substantive progress has been made in this regard.

4. Control of Lake Level by Post Falls Dam

Prior to construction of Post Falls Dam in 1906, the surface water elevation of Coeur d’Alene Lake was determined by the elevation of the natural lake outlet, the hydraulic capacity of the Spokane River outlet channel above Post Falls, and the amount and timing of inflow. During spring runoff and rapid snowmelt events, total inflow often exceeded the natural outflow capacity of the Spokane River, causing the lake to fill and its surface elevation to rise. A maximum lake surface elevation of 2139 feet was recorded during an extreme flood event on December 25, 1933. As inflows decreased and were exceeded by outflow, the surface elevation, which is controlled by the elevation of the lake outlet, receded to its minimum level of 2119.9 feet (recorded on February 9-10, 1977). In most years, Coeur d’Alene Lake probably reached minimum levels by mid-summer. Data suggest that in a normal year, the surface elevation of Coeur d’Alene Lake would reach 2126 feet by the first of June. The lake would recede to 2123 feet by the end of June, and to 2121 feet by the end of July. At the end of August, it elevations would approach 2120 feet.

Post Falls Dam construction and operation has resulted in Coeur d’Alene Lake surface water elevations being held at higher levels throughout the summer months. The lake is then drawn down in the fall to provide water for hydroelectric power generation. So, the lake level remains higher for a longer time period and does not reach its minimum elevation until much later in the year. Initially, the summer lake level was held at approximately 2126.5 feet but increased, presumably to maximize power generation during World War II in the early 1940s, to an elevation of 2128 feet, where it currently remains. The current operation of Post Falls dam artificially floods approximately 13,500 acres of low-relief lands adjacent to the lake and lower reaches of the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe Rivers with water up to eight feet deep throughout the summer, a much longer period than would otherwise occur. This longer period of inundation has converted former wetlands, meadows and forested areas to shallow water habitats alternating with bare mud flats, resulting in significant changes in the plants and animals that occupy these areas, as well as lake-wide effects to water quality.

All non-Federal hydroelectric dams in the US must be licensed, and the Federal Power Act (FPA) of 1920 provides the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) exclusive authority to do this. Hydroelectric projects are typically licensed for a 30 to 50-year period. Post Falls Dam is currently licensed as part of the Spokane River Project to Avista Corporation (formerly Washington Water Power). The FERC license for this project was first issued in 1977 and it is scheduled to expire in 2007. Since 2001, the Spokane River Project has been preparing for relicensing (see Spokane River Project relicensing pages at Avista’s web site.

The FERC relicensing process requires years of extensive planning, including environmental studies, agency consensus and public involvement. The FPA was amended in 1986 by the Electric Consumers Protection Act (ECPA) and the amended law requires that FERC give equal consideration to the non-generating benefits of the natural resource (fish, wildlife, aesthetics, water quality, land use, and recreational resources, for example) along with the benefit of power production. This range of issues is addressed through a consultation process, outlined in FERC rules. In addition, other reviewing and conditioning authorities come into play, including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and several portions of the Federal Power Act that create specific licensing conditioning authorities.

Consequently, the relicensing process can be very complicated, and at times has led to extended conflict between interests. In an effort to resolve the range of issues in a more productive fashion, relicensing efforts have more recently shifted to provide increased opportunity to collaborate on issue resolution. This shift, recognized as the “Alternative Licensing Procedures,” (ALP) also aims to improve coordination between the various authorities that come into play during relicensing.

The Tribe has been actively involved in the Spokane River relicensing process along with many other stakeholders. The Tribe, as a Native Sovereign Nation, has certain unique responsibilities, including the capacity to protect Tribal Trust resources by placing conditions on the final license. Tribal staff have participated in all of the technical work groups that were established for this relicensing: Water Resources, Fisheries, Terrestrial Resources, Cultural Resources, Recreation and Plenary. The Plenary Group has the special responsibility of considering the results of research efforts and “PM&Es” (protection, mitigation and enhancement measures) developed by the technical work groups and developing a comprehensive agreement that will be the basis of a new license application. The Tribe also is involved in reviewing and commenting on the Preliminary Draft Environmental Assessment (PDEA) developed by the proponent (Avista) in support of their license application.

5. Residential and Commercial Development

Kootenai County, Idaho, is one of the fastest growing counties in the region. Kootenai County extends south from the City of Coeur d’Alene to encompass most of Coeur d’Alene Lake including a portion of the Tribal waters. The growth pressure in the County is particularly intense in areas within view of Coeur d’Alene Lake, judging by the number of subdivision application notices that the County provides to the Tribe’s Environmental Programs Office for comment.

While development in the watershed is not necessarily bad, there is a critical need for developments, whether on the lake or elsewhere within the watershed, and whether a single family construction or a large residential / commercial facility, to be constructed and operated with lake protection in mind. Because development implies the conversion of native soils and vegetation to impervious surfaces (roads, roofs etc) there is a need to control stormwater runoff from the development. Increased runoff from developed lands can carry pollutants into water bodies as well as it can cause erosion of the land causing siltation of water bodies. In addition, human occupation of lands frequently involves the use of potentially hazardous or polluting chemicals (including oil and gasoline, fertilizers, pesticides and cleaning solvents).

While Kootenai County does have development ordinances which are designed to protect surface waters from adverse impacts due to development, the Tribe will need to be involved in as many of these projects as possible to ensure the protection of Tribal Trust resources from the initial as well as long-term impacts. A clean, healthy lake is critical to the economic vitality and quality of life for all those who love and enjoy the lake. Thus the Tribe will work to balance the need for clean water with the need to accommodate growth around the lake.

6. Recreational Boating

Power boats present several issues regarding the safety of the people who use them. To protect the boating public Kootenai County, the State of Idaho and The US Coast Guard all issue manuals on boating safety. However, power boats have been studied and found to have the potential to cause a number of negative impacts to water quality and shoreline habitats as well. In addition, power boats, as they are built larger and more powerful will have an even greater potential for impacts, both environmental and safety-wise.

Boat wakes have been implicated in the erosion of the natural levees lining the St. Joe River. Boats can leak fuel and oil into waters affecting aquatic organisms. Boats also stir up bottom sediments in shallow areas causing there-suspension of nutrients which effect algae growth and water clarity. It is for these reasons that the Tribe will likely become involved in managing boats and boating in the future.