For the last three decades, Lake Pend Orielle’s shoreline has gradually marched into the lake each fall as the water is drained more than 11 feet below its summer level.
The annual release of water through Albeni Falls Dam leaves kokanee salmon spawning beds high and dry during the winter.
This fall will mark the first time since the mid-1960s that the lake level will be maintained at a higher level.
The change is good news to sportsmen and fisheries biologists worried about the decline of kokanee in the lake.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Keith Snyder, who runs a charter fishing business on the lake. “I think anything they do is really positive at this point.”
The change is the result of an Idaho Department of Fish and Game experiment that biologists hope will prove kokanee need higher winter lake levels in order to survive. The agency has been trying to get approval for the project for the last five years. This month, the Northwest Power Planning Council approved the plan.
As a result, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to provide the central element needed for the experiment: higher lake levels.
“The lake will be kept four feet higher than normal this winter as part of an experiment,” confirmed Dave Harris, a Corps spokesman.
The Corps has historically resisted requests to keep the lake at a higher level to help kokanee because of the pressure from energy utilities that don’t want to pay a higher price for power.
In January, the Lake Pend Orielle Idaho Club sued the Corps, claiming the annual drawdown was having disastrous effects on the kokanee population for the sake of power generation.
Ned Horner, a Fish and Game fisheries biologist, estimated the actual cost to rate-payers would be “less than a dime a month.”
The price is worth it, he said.
“We’re going to have to do something,” Horner said. “I can’t be a responsible fish manager and let a fish population collapse without doing something.”
Helping the kokanee will help other fish in Lake Pend Orielle, too, Horner and Snyder said. Because trout and other big fish eat the kokanee, Fish and Game hasn’t been aiding the growth of the predator populations.
“Fishermen obviously are not real happy,” Horner said.
Increasing the winter lake level from an elevation of 2,051 feet to 2,055 feet may not seem like a lot, but it may be enough.
The dam was built in 1952, and for 15 years the lake level was lowered to 2,056 feet in the winter. In the 1960s, for additional power generation, the lake was drawn down to 2,051 and “things started to fall apart,” Horner said.
The wild kokanee population has been going steadily downhill since then and the hatchery population is not replacing it, he said.
The lake now has only 10 percent to 20 percent of the kokanee it used to have, judging by the size of harvests, Horner said.
Snyder’s been noticing more kokanee this year, but that’s because 15 million fingerling fish were released from the hatchery last year.
But it’s still not like it used to be.
“In the evenings, the whole lake would come alive with kokanee,” Snyder recalled.