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Our View: Idaho should accept funding help for lake cleanup

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe made a funding gesture this week that should be welcomed in both Idaho and Washington.

The tribe owns only a third of Lake Coeur d’Alene, but it has offered to pay half the cost of carrying out a lake management plan intended to contain the heavy metals now lying relatively safely in the sediment beneath the water. If the plan doesn’t work, or doesn’t get implemented, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected to intervene and declare a Superfund site.

Therefore, a lot rides on whether the Idaho Legislature will come up with nearly $400,000 to cover the remaining half of the cost. Water quality and public health issues are at stake on both sides of the state line.

Some of those heavy metals find their way downstream; concentrations of zinc, lead and cadmium are an ongoing concern in the Spokane River. But mostly they lie on the lake bottom, held in place by dissolved oxygen.

If oxygen levels drop, however, the metals become more soluble and work their way up into the body of the lake.

The main threat to the oxygen is the aquatic plant life that feeds on phosphorus and other nutrients that enter the lake from wastewater treatment facilities and “nonpoint” sources, such as runoff from fertilized lawns.

The problem is familiar to local governments and businesses on the Washington side of the line, where Spokane County’s ability to license a planned sewage plant depends on state and federal regulatory acceptance of plans to minimize phosphate discharges into the river.

That process suffered a setback recently when the EPA unexpectedly insisted that nutrient loading from Idaho be accounted for. Thus, if the lake management plan drafted by the Coeur d’Alenes and the state of Idaho can lower phosphates upstream, Spokane County will benefit as well.

The fact that the lake management plan exists at all is a tribute to the perseverence of the tribe and the Department of Environmental Quality, who failed in three previous efforts to reach an agreement. But it is heavy on information-gathering and public education and light on enforcement muscle, a point that has been stressed by skeptics such as DEQ’s Washington counterpart, the Department of Ecology. That’s a concern that should be addressed when and if the process moves ahead.

The “if” part of that equation is a matter of securing the funding needed for implementation. DEQ has already experienced sharp organizational cutbacks to absorb a 16.1 percent budget reduction for next year. Gov. Butch Otter is asking no other new funding for the agency than the lake management plan.

Still, in as bleak an economy as this, even a few hundred thousand dollars will be a challenge. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has made it a little less formidable.

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