On the Lake: Our Water Quality Monitoring Program is no joke

By Shannon Williamson
Reader Columnist

It’s clearly still winter outside, but my mind keeps wandering toward summer. I’m sure I’m not alone. Winter in North Idaho can be a little rough. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing in the snow, and we’ve been blessed with a bunch of it this year. However, I would also like to see that big yellow ball in the sky (the sun?) a whole lot more.

Shannon Williamson.

Summer is also on my mind because that’s when we’ll kick off our seventh season of our Water Quality Monitoring Program. Starting in June, you’ll find us out on the water with a group of rock-star citizen scientists collecting water samples once a month through October at 15 locations around the lake and river.

I’ve written about our monitoring program before and how in love I am with all our volunteers. We seriously COULD NOT run this program without them. Today, I want to share with you how powerful the water quality data that comes out of this program really is.

We started the program in 2012 because we strongly disagreed with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) decision to remove the Pend Oreille River from the list of Idaho’s impaired waterways. The river was originally placed on the list for excess phosphorous, which contributes to overgrowth of aquatic vegetation and algae.

DEQ then reversed their decision and said the river was fine. What? We shared some water testing results that showed high levels of phosphorous in river samples. DEQ didn’t take our results seriously because they have very strict criteria for accepting data from outside the agency. So we created a program that meets their criteria. Problem solved!

Since that time, DEQ has used our data to take a much closer look at what’s been going on in Boyer Slough. DEQ didn’t know that Boyer Slough was suffering from extreme nutrient pollution until we shared our data with them. They followed up, confirmed our findings, and have since included it on the list of impaired waterways in Idaho. DEQ is now working on developing a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that will limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that can enter the slough. This should really help improve the slough’s water quality.

EPA has also used our data to help them create discharge limits for wastewater treatment facilities. Sometimes the discharge limits are good at protecting water quality, and sometimes they’re terrible. Most recently, that was the case with the permit written for the Kootenai Ponderay Sewer District that discharges to Boyer Slough. Boyer Slough can’t catch a break.

While the amount of phosphorous that could be discharged was tightly restricted (yay!), the amount of nitrogen that could be discharged was ridiculous. We shared the nitrogen data we have collected over the years with EPA and requested they ratchet down the amount of nitrogen that could be discharged to the slough. Guess what? They did! Much more than we ever thought they would.

We’re so proud that we’ve created real positive change for our local waterways through our Water Quality Monitoring Program. We hope to continue to do so for a very long time. If you want to learn how to become a part of our rock-star citizen scientist team, please let me know. You can also support this program by becoming a member. You can join today at www.lpow.org.

Shannon Williamson is the executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and president of Sandpoint City Council.

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