A new Lake Coeur d’Alene Waterkeeper program aims to get residents involved in helping protect one of North Idaho’s most valuable assets: water quality in the 50-square-mile lake.
“We want people to take ownership of their lake and be aware of how their actions can affect water quality,” said Adrienne Cronebaugh, executive director of Kootenai Environmental Alliance, which recently launched the lake program.
The Waterkeeper Alliance is a coalition of 200 nonprofit groups worldwide that relies on local residents to watchdog the health of waterways near them. Local Waterkeeper programs also exist for the Spokane River, Lake Pend Oreille and the Silver Valley. Here’s an edited version of a recent interview with Cronebaugh.
Q: What is the benefit of being part of the Waterkeeper Alliance?
A: KEA has a long-standing tradition of being protectors of this watershed and advocates for public access to local waterways. Being able to brand as the Lake Coeur d’Alene Waterkeeper helps define all the work we’ve done and will continue to do.
KEA has always been kind of a scrappy organization that hasn’t been afraid to take it to the line with issues that we feel passionately about. The Waterkeeper Alliance is the same way. They won’t be bullied, they won’t back down. We like that attitude.
Q: I understand that you’ll need a boat.
A: The Waterkeeper Alliance motto is “on-the-water advocates.” We’ll be recruiting a boat so we can be out on the lake, investigating citizen concerns and any reported (water quality) violations sent to us.
Q: What are the major threats facing Lake Coeur d’Alene?
A: Stormwater is a key focus right now. We had a consultant do a review of all the industrial and commercial facilities in the Lake Coeur d’Alene/Spokane River drainage. We also had volunteers going out on bikes to check properties. We had our consultant contact industries that could improve their stormwater practices. We gave them information on how they could be better stewards of their stormwater.
Q: What is stormwater and why is it bad for the lake?
A: All of the water that hits the ground during a rain or snow event becomes stormwater. In Coeur d’Alene, any water on the road flows into stormwater drains. None of that water is treated before it hits the lake. That is the key education piece we’ve been trying to get out. Stormwater transports the copper dust from car brakes it picks up from the roadway, the residue from aluminum roofing, the pet waste from alleyways and roads. That all goes straight into our lakes and river.
One of the stormwater outfalls is right in the middle of Sanders Beach. The pipe sticks right out there. Everyone is swimming around it.
In Post Falls, they’ve implemented a grassy swale system throughout the city. The water goes into these swales and filters through soil and gravel before it hits the Spokane River. It works like a Brita (water purification) filter. It’s better for water quality.
Q: What other lake issues are priorities?
A: For KEA, the No. 1 issue right now is protective ordinances for the lake, via the new development code that’s being created through the Kootenai County Planning Commission.
Development increases the potential for phosphorus loading in the lake. We want adequate buffer zones around the lake and streams so that runoff (from erosion and fertilizer) has time to filter before it hits the waterway.
Only about 25 percent of Lake Coeur d’Alene has shoreline vegetation. We need more of that native vegetation for a healthy ecosystem. The old land use code only called for a 25-foot development setback from the lake. Bonner County has a 40-foot setback for Lake Pend Oreille and a 75-foot setback for streams and rivers. In Spokane County, it’s anywhere from 50 to 200 feet. We’d like to see that proactive approach here in Kootenai County as well.
Q: How does phosphorus interact with metals in Lake Coeur d’Alene?
A: This lake serves as a catch basin for heavy metals from historic mining activity upstream in the basin. None of those metals have been removed. They’re just layered in the sediment in the lake bottom. (A lake management plan developed by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the state of Idaho relies on dissolved oxygen in the water to act as a cap on those metals. Algae blooms from phosphorus reduce oxygen levels and can disrupt that balance.) We need to keep this water cold, and we need to keep it as healthy as possible.
Q: We talked about threats to the lake. What are some of the opportunities?
A: The actions needed to protect water quality aren’t excessive. Expanding buffer zones eliminates the need for expensive (engineering solutions). We’re aware of quite a few things that homeowners can do for free to reduce runoff from their property to the lake.
Q: What’s your long-term vision for the program?
A: I have a 5-year-old son. I want this lake to be drinkable, swimmable and fishable for him and his generation, and beyond.