When Hank Jones stands on the edge of the Priest River, he can see the possibilities. An idyllic trout stream, as if designed with location scouts for “A River Runs Through It” in mind. Anglers coming from far and wide to catch trout, a fishery equal to the North Fork Coeur d’Alene or the St. Joe.
“It passes the fisherman’s litmus test,” the Washington-based fishing guide said of Priest River. “If you’re a trout angler and you go to that river and you look around, how is this not working?”
Biologists agree with Jones. The 45-mile -long river has “incredible potential.” Plus, it’s connected to larger bodies of water where endangered bull trout spawn – Lake Pend Oreille, for instance.
But there remains one fatal flaw. Summertime temperatures are routinely too hot for many cold-water fish, including native westslope cutthroat trout, bull trout and mountain whitefish. That state of affairs is blamed on Outlet Dam, which since 1951 has controlled the lake level of Priest Lake.
During last summer’s record-setting heat wave, there were reports of fish die-offs up and down the Priest River, a scenario that will likely become more common, according to regional climate change modeling.
Those facts prompted the Kalispel Tribe, in concert with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, in 2013 to propose a cold-water bypass that would shunt cooler water from the depths of Priest Lake up and over Outlet Dam. According to two third-party studies commissioned by the tribe and state in 2013 and 2021, the bypass would have no negative impact on the lake and would lower the temperature in Priest River enough for trout to survive there during the heat of the summer.
The concept, however, has met stiff and somewhat unexpected opposition, mainly from Priest Lake property owners worried about unintended negative impacts on the North Idaho lake.
Those concerns were on full display during a June 18 meeting. While specific worries vary, the common theme is a belief that the siphon will unintentionally hurt the mountain lake or damage recreation opportunities. Resistance has coalesced into an opposition group known as Stop the Priest Lake Siphon (see sidebar). For the past year, the group has hosted public meetings, advocated local lawmakers and actively posted on social media raising concerns ranging from the legality of moving the water to fears the construction process will destroy the river channel.
“We are concerned residents of the lake,” said Allan Songstad, a retired lawyer who gave an hourlong presentation critiquing the cold-water bypass proposal on June 18. “We are not against creating a cold-water fishery. We aren’t sure it can be done. And certainly what is being proposed is going to be detrimental to the lake and it’s not going to help the fish.”
At the June meeting, which was held at Priest Lake Elementary and, judging from the majority of Washington license plates, was mainly attended by out-of-state constituents, Songstad gave a detailed critique of the IDFG’s proposal. In particular, he questioned the two studies commissioned by the Kalispel Tribe and IDFG finding that the bypass would be more effective and cheaper than other cooling ideas.
His primary critiques as presented at the meeting are outlined below:
- The 2013 Portland State study and the 2021 limnology study used data only from one year.
- The economic benefit of a cold-water fishery is overestimated in IDFG’s analysis and the cost of the project is drastically underestimated.
- It may not be legal to move the water because property owners on the lake have senior water rights.
- The temperatures needed for a sustainable fishery won’t be met under the current plan.
- Decreasing the flow of water out of Priest Lake could lead to more blue-green algae blooms in Outlet Bay.
Songstad, who was a trial lawyer, gave a succinct argument, one that was easy to follow and enthusiastically received by the primarily anti-siphon crowd. After the meeting Kathy Ball, a cabin owner on the lake’s west side, said it was simple “logic.”
“Why risk ruining the big recreation area to give a few people some fish?” she asked. Her husband added, “What the heck? Pump water out of the lake? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Andy Dux didn’t expect any of this.
“It seems like a win-win,” said Dux the Panhandle Region fisheries manager. “You can do something that isn’t going to have negative impacts on the lake but can improve the river.”
Dux said he doesn’t understand the resistance and that most of the anti-siphon critiques are using bad data, misinterpreting real data or misrepresenting what IDFG is proposing. Social media posts have spread that bad information, he said, creating controversy and doubt where, at least in Dux’s view, there need not be any.
“We have continuously been trying to put out these brush fires of false information,” said Merritt Horsmon, an IDFG biologist. “Or misinformation. Whatever you want to call it.”
A prime example? Songstad told the June crowd that, according to IDFG’s own data, the bypass won’t cool the river enough to support trout species, thus invalidating the entire project.
“That is a really bogus argument,” said Chip Corsi, who was until June the Panhandle Regional director for IDFG.
What Songstad was referencing was the temperatures trout need to spawn, which are lower. Trout, however, can survive at higher temperatures when they aren’t spawning, like in the summer, Corsi said.
“He can make a coherent argument if you don’t understand that his facts are being taken out of context and being used improperly,” Corsi said. “This is not a stupid idea. It’s actually a great idea. It’s not like we don’t have some boxes to check.”
Corsi also defended the most recent limnology study which found that the proposal wouldn’t hurt the lake. Songstad critiqued those findings partly because IDFG paid a third-party company to conduct the study. That’s a common practice among fish and wildlife agencies. As for water right questions, IDFG agency officials said that since the bypass wouldn’t change the overall flow over Outlet Dam, they didn’t think it necessitated a new water right. Per Idaho statute, Priest Lake has to remain at full pool for summer recreation. Finally, as far as blue green algae blooms go, the limnology study found that decreasing the overall input of warm water from Priest Lake into Outlet Bay may decrease the instances of blooms.
“You talk about permanent impacts? Well, you can turn it off,” Corsi said. “It’s just a valve. If it really got that bad, which it won’t.”
For the Kalispel Tribe’s part, cooling Priest River is an important step in their ongoing efforts to recover bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. Two ecologically and culturally important species that, like oceangoing fish, migrate away from, and back to, their natal streams. While the tribe supports the cold water bypass proposal, officials there want to address public concerns.
“Their love for their resource and their lake is intense and that is an asset, not a liability,” said Deane Osterman, executive director of the Kalispel’s Natural Resources Department. “(The question is) how do you get people’s threat level down to where you can actually have a conversation about something and see where this thing leads?”
Concern that a well-intentioned ecological project may have unintended consequences isn’t delusional. The history books are littered with such examples. In fact, one need look no farther than Priest Lake in the 1960s. That’s when IDFG officials introduced Mysis shrimp in the belief that they would boost native kokanee populations.
It didn’t work. Instead, the shrimp boosted lake trout populations, which in turn depressed and eventually collapsed the kokanee population. The fishery has recovered to some extent with IDFG reopening kokanee fishing in 2011, although it remains well below the days before the shrimp.
Dux and other IDFG staff are acutely aware of this history. But they point out that fishery and wildlife management is more conservative than it was in the 1960s. And in the case of the Priest Lake siphon, they have a similar project on which to model their efforts.
That’s the siphon on Sullivan Lake in Washington. Since that siphon went into operation in 2015, the temperature in Sullivan Creek has steadily dropped during the summer months, according to Bill Baker, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Region 1 fish biologist.
“There haven’t been any adverse affects to Sullivan Lake,” he said. “It’s all positive from my perspective.”
Songstad remains skeptical that the project, which is much smaller than the Priest proposal, is a fair comparison.
Tapping the brakes
Still, the questions raised by those opposed to the Priest Lake bypass seem to have, at least in the short run, slowed things down with complaints and concerns making their way to Gov. Brad Little’s office.
“We are monitoring the proposal’s progress,” said Madison Hardy, the governor’s press secretary in an email. “We want to ensure we move forward on the right path to benefit Idaho wildlife and keep our waters healthy.”
For their part, IDFG officials emphasize that the idea is still just that, an idea. While they stand behind the science, the outcry has shown them that they need to do more outreach.
The agency hopes to refocus the debate on the underlying problem – namely that Priest River is too warm – and try and show the public why the bypass is the best option. As part of that effort, Trout Unlimited is starting a watershed group aimed at “prioritizing restoration concepts for the Lower Priest River,” according to Erin Plue, a CdA project manager for the national advocacy organization. TU will survey local sentiments and concerns about the river.
“TU is interested in seeing cold-water fishery habitat value enhanced on the Lower Priest River by whatever means are determined likely to be successful and achievable by this group and the local resource/land managers,” Plue said in an email
“If something else emerges that is a viable strategy that makes more sense than the bypass we’re wide open to that,” Dux said.
“But we are not willing to just say we are not going to look at this any further because some people don’t like it.”