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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Nation/World

Residents Rush To Plug Leaky Lake

An aluminum boat, tied to the dock, sat beached on weeds and mud.

“It was only last week that this was sitting in water,” said Rod Erickson, shaking his head on Monday.

For the second time in less than a year, Erickson has become a lake plumber, patching holes on the lake bed. Last fall, he and other volunteers packed clay and gravel into holes in the bed of so-called “Mill Pond,” which forms the north end of Spirit Lake.

The plugs worked. The water rose.

“We came up an inch a day, and it was looking good,” Erickson recalled.

“We thought we had it licked,” said homeowner Jeff Brown.

But in April, the tide turned.

Since then, the two men have found at least 10 more holes, and they think more are forming. Using homemade barges, a bucket with a seethrough bottom and dry suits, the two amateur lake plumbers are trying to patch the new holes, one by one.

“It has to be done,” said Erickson. “Shoot, I can’t go fishing if I don’t have a lake.”

State officials aren’t exactly sure why the lake is leaking, but they know it’s leaking a lot.

The water level is below the lip of the Mill Pond’s small dam, so the only way for water to get out is through the lake bottom. On May 2, the Idaho Department of Water Resources measured the inlet to the lake and pegged it at 30,000 gallons per minute.

“And the lake was still going down,” said Will Pitman, an administrator with the Idaho Department of Lands.

On Monday, Erickson steered a small fishing boat toward the inlet. Water from the lake was rushing into Mill Pond.

“Look at the current you’ve got coming in,” he said. “And we’re losing it all.”

The Mill Pond serves as the drain to Spirit Lake’s bathtub. Some lake homeowners suggest the pond should be sealed off from the lake. But that would turn Mill Pond waterfront property into mud flats.

“The Mill Pond people would go berserk,” said Pitman. “That would cause a war.”

Pitman said annual droughts turn the lake bed into a sieve, drying and cracking the clay each summer. Patching the holes helps, he thinks, but the ultimate cure will probably be time and more rain.

“The lake should eventually form its own seal and heal itself,” he said.

Erickson believes the holes are the main problem. He and Brown have floated most of the pond, which is about a third of a mile long and 250 yards wide. They cut the end off a bucket and replaced it with Plexiglass, so they can peer into the lake from the side of a boat.

“Eventually, we’ll know this like our back yards,” said Erickson. “But it’s a pretty big back yard.”

It’s also tough, he said, to tell legitimate holes from the occasional moose footprint, or hole dug by a toad when the lakebed is nearly dry. The trick, he said, is stirring up some muck near a suspected hole. If it gets sucked down, the hole is declared a “leaker” and marked with a floating milk jug tied to a railroad spike.

“Until you really see it happen, it’s hard to believe,” said Brown.

There are about eight such markers floating on the pond now. Brown found one hole underneath his dock.

When a hole is found, Brown and Erickson tow over a homemade barge. They drop a plastic tube around the hole, pressing it into the mud and leaving the top standing out of the water. The water in the tube drains out, leaving a small circle of dry lakebed at the bottom of the tube.

The two then pour gravel and clay into the hole. On big holes, they first use a sandbag as a plug.

“We use it as a bathtub plug to stop up the hole,” said Erickson. “We stomp it in with our feet, then build over it.”

They’ve also discovered that some of last year’s patches are leaking again. Erickson discovered one such hole Monday, while showing visitors last year’s repairs.

“Uh, oh. I don’t like this,” he said, shutting down the boat’s motor and reaching for the viewing bucket. “That hole is starting to collapse. We’ll come back and put two or three wheelbarrow-loads of gravel on it.”

So far, patching the holes has been pretty cheap. Gravel is donated by a Spirit Lake gravel company, and the watertight clay is bought with $2,500 in donations from lake-area homeowners.

“They’re all hopeful that we can hold it,” said Erickson. “Everyone’s kind of got their fingers crossed.”

But Brown, who moved to his Mill Pond home six months ago, would like to see more help.

“I want a government agency in here to fix this,” he said. “We’ve got a problem here.”

Erickson, who wants to try the lowtech solution first, said the two just need a few more volunteers. It’s going to take a long time, he thinks, to spot and patch all the holes.

“It’s probably going to go on for a year or two, and then it will always be something that needs to be watched,” he said. “But we’ll gradually eliminate them, one by one.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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