August in Sandpoint. There are few settings more ideal for a summer vacation.
The weather is warm and the lake temperature is just right for swimming, skiing, wakeboarding and tubing. But what appears to be picture perfect is not always so. Again this year, residents and visitors are confused about the safety of swimming in Lake Pend Oreille during the month of August.
The culprit? The chemical application used in late summer to treat Eurasian milfoil – an underwater plant that begins to grow in early spring and inhibits the growth of other plants that are beneficial to the ecology of lakes and rivers.
Terry McNabb, the owner and manager of AquaTechnex, the company Bonner County’s Public Works Department has contracted to treat the milfoil, assures residents that the chemicals used are safe.
“The EPA has studied these products extensively. When EPA issues a label or license to sell and apply an aquatic herbicide, the research they have performed specifically looks at the issue (of safety for swimmers),” said McNabb. “The U.S. EPA spends about 10 years researching aquatic herbicides prior to allowing them for application to water. They have to meet much stricter criteria than most other products.”
The milfoil plant was discovered in the United States in the early 1900s and can now be found in rivers and lakes throughout North America. According to the Department of Ecology, milfoil is easily spread among bodies of water on boats, trailers and fishing poles.
As it grows, milfoil forms dense vegetation on the surface of the water, depriving the water of oxygen and trapping sediments.
In late summer the milfoil plants become brittle, breaking apart and spreading, making August the ideal month to apply treatments.
AquaTechnex, whose work is funded by a grant from the Idaho Department of Agriculture, began its work in Lake Pend Oreille on Aug. 10, and McNabb said the project will stretch across approximately 70 miles of shoreline. The first chemical applied is a granular herbicide that is placed on a pellet and has a timed release over a period of 24 hours. According to AquaTechnex, its only prohibition is for human consumption or for irrigation of certain plants – otherwise it is perfectly safe. The company then follows up with another herbicide application.
“Both of the products approved by the U.S. EPA for this project have been cleared to be used without the imposition of a swimming restriction,” said McNabb, who added that his company posts notices along the shorelines 48 hours prior to application to advise people of the project.
Some have reservations
In spite of reassurances, some residents aren’t buying it.
Sagle resident Suzan Fiskin moved here from Seattle 2 ½ years ago in part because of the beauty of the area. She has attended meetings, questioned the company that is administering the chemical treatments and says she is appalled at the lack of research into alternative environmentally friendly ways to treat the milfoil. Furthermore, she says, she has yet to be convinced that there is a problem.
“The most precious commodity we have and the one that is in highest demand is fresh water,” said Fiskin. “And to not even consider nontoxic and noninvasive alternatives before poisoning our pristine lake is unconscionable. I never saw that it (chemical-free alternatives) was ever on the table.”
Fiskin says she knows people who live on the river who have not even received notice of when this will be done.
“They have done nothing to inform people who will be most affected by this,” said Fiskin.
She also said that she knows people who have suffered from rashes, nausea and illnesses, due, she says, to the chemicals treating the milfoil.
Requests for delays
Some residents have requested that AquaTechnex wait until at least the end of the summer, specifically after Labor Day, to begin the treatments. But AquaTechnex says timing is critical to the effectiveness of the treatment and must be done during the month of August when the plant is at a specific stage of growth.
McNabb said a nonchemical alternative such as harvesting can be effective but is extremely expensive and takes a great deal of time.
“The real issue in this system is these other technologies are well beyond the budget, because of the area that needs to be targeted and because of the objective of reducing the population dramatically. Bottom barriers, for example, cost about $1 per square foot and there are 43,560 square feet per acre,” said McNabb.
But Scott Rief, owner of Rief Diving in Sandpoint, disagrees. Rief says he uses two different methods to rid an area of milfoil – dredging and bottom barriers. To assist in the dredging Rief said he uses a large pump that moves 500 gallons of water per minute. Since milfoil typically does not grow in deep water, the diver is assisted by someone on the barge to help keep on track.
The barrier method is performed by placing a 10-by-10-foot square, made out of PVC and road fabric and weighted down by sand, over the infested area. The barrier deprives the milfoil of sunlight and kills it.
According to Rief the barrier method is the preferred method, as there is less room for human error. Either method, however, is chemical free.
Rief attempted to place bids when the treatment started a few years ago but says he was met with much opposition from state officials and was not able to obtain the required permits until the bidding deadline had passed.
Rief said he also had extensive support from local people willing to help out financially just to prevent chemicals from being dumped into the lake.
“I thought it was great,” said Rief. “I had a lot of private people willing to pay out of their pocket to help the lake and their waterfront.”
In 2006 Bonner County became eligible to receive funding from the state Department of Agriculture for the treatment of milfoil and that year AquaTechnex won the bid and targeted approximately 4,000 acres of the plant. A different firm won the bid in 2007 and 2008, but AquaTechnex has returned this year to apply the treatments.
McNabb said that in 2004 the surveys performed determined the plant covered an area of approximately 6,700 acres in the Pend Oreille lake and river system. Today he says that number is under 1,000 acres, showing that the treatments are highly effective.
Long-term solutions urged
Fiskin said she would like to see a committee formed that would look into a long-term solution instead of what she says is short-term thinking. She would also like a full investigation into the cumulative effect of the chemicals. “But I don’t see that the natural alternatives even have an opportunity unless it is self-funding,” she said. “It is all about the money.”
Jennifer Ekstrom, the executive director for Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper, said she believes the conditions in Lake Pend Oreille and the river this year seem conducive to divers dredging the lake as opposed to using any chemical treatments.
“When it comes to protecting our magnificent lake that we all enjoy, I would like to take a conservative approach,” Ekstrom said.