Officials: Lake will be mostly dry in summer 2021

Historic drawdown aims to eradicate aquatic invasive species, limit summertime visitors amid pandemic

By Clayton Rau
Special to the Reader

Sandpoint residents are about to become reacquainted with the community’s namesake sandbar, as government officials prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime dramatic drawdown of Lake Pend Oreille this summer.

While summer pool levels typically measure around 2,000 feet above sea level, beginning June 31 regulators will drain all but the water needed to generate a minimum amount of power at regional dams. That will leave area docks high and dry and much of the lake bed exposed until the resumption of normal operations in the spring of 2022. 

U.S. Engineering Corps Col. Arnold Benedict announced the lake operation in a news release March 31, stating that the unprecedented drawdown is necessary in part to combat rampant aquatic weed growth, as well as implement a public health effort to tamp down summertime visitors amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

A projection of how Lake Pend Oreille will look after it has been drained. Courtesy photo.

“With the recent growth in population in the northern counties of Idaho, the USEC and regional water quality monitoring agencies have recorded a dramatic increase in aquatic invasive species such as milfoil, zebra mussels and nitrogen loading from fertilized lawns on lakefront properties,” Benedict stated in the release. “More concerning, lakebed soil analysis has revealed a new water quality threat, which researchers have termed ‘Evergreen Sludge,’ apparently transplanted to northern Idaho by boaters primarily from Washington state.”

According to USEC, the convergence of so many aquatic threats has put Lake Pend Oreille on a collision course with entropic toxicity. While milfoil, zebra mussels and nitrogen are known quantities in area waterways, the so-called “Evergreen Sludge” is a particularly concerning threat, officials stated. 

The point source for the pollutant — named for its apparent perennial growth — is still being identified, but appears to stem particularly from pontoon boats purchased in the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area since 2016. 

Water biologist Katherine Quagga-Smythe, of the Idaho Waterways Health Consortium, based at the State University of Idaho in St. Anthony, described the “sludge” as a thin film that settles on the lakebed, depriving plants and organisms of both oxygen and sunlight, as well as devouring all available living space.

“We still don’t fully understand the constituent elements of ‘Evergreen Sludge,’ but what we do know is that it seems particularly reactive to aquatic sonic vibrations — for example, loud music and powerful boat engines appear to stimulate its spread,” she told the Reader in an email. “In its basic form, the sludge appears inert, but spreads in huge mat-like formations with increased surface noise and activity.

“Without immediate action, this sludge could achieve near total coverage on Lake Pend Oreille within a year, crowding out all other native lifeforms,” she added.

“Draining the lake” is too dramatic a description, Benedict said in a follow-up interview with the Reader; rather, he said to think of the operation as an opportunity to give the near- and mid-shore waters a “good scrub, like your toilet bowl,” he said.

“You have to wash that bowl, but it doesn’t work if you shut off the water completely,” he said, noting that the decline in tourism dollars should be compensated by the mass hiring of “pickers” — that is, individuals in the community who will be hired on a seasonal basis to rake and clean the lake bed. 

The state has already allocated several thousand dollars to fund the cleanup, paying $12.50 per hour, though the measure saw strong opposition from legislative Republicans who argued that the wage rate is too high and runs the risk of Idahoans becoming dependent on public funds.

What’s more, Rep. Bart McCarthy, R-Spirit Lake, doubted the existence of the water quality threats, calling the drawdown and cleanup “a power grab” by state and federal authorities.

“Look at the science,” he told reporters in Boise. 

When asked to elaborate, McCarthy referred members of state media to the blog truthwatch.ru/operationlaketakeover before hastily ending his Statehouse remarks. 

Meanwhile, officials with the federal Center for Epidemiological Control applauded the drawdown as an efficient way to limit summertime visitors, noting that Bonner County’s infection rate from COVID-19 has remained high even despite the increased availability of vaccines. In large part, the sustained infection rate has been attributed to out-of-state visitors flocking to the region over the past year to evade stricter virus control measures in their home communities. 

“We’ll have to wait and see whether this has an effect on viral spread — those numbers should be clear by the fall — but in the short-term we feel this is a viable way to protect communities like Sandpoint, which are both benefited and severely harmed by the influx of mask-averse vacationers,” said CEC spokesperson William Hamhand, speaking from the agency’s Northwest Division in Otis, Ore.

“We may well recommend this strategy to other resort communities, such as Tahoe, Calif., and South Beach, Fla.,” he added.

Local reaction has been mixed. Longtime anglers are concerned about the near-complete dieoff of resident fish populations, though as Gene Woods — a lifelong resident and once-avid fisherman said — “there’s no fish in this lake anyway.”

Area pontoon boat sellers are angered that their product has been implicated in the spread of “Evergreen Sludge,” as well as concerned that the reduced pool level in Lake Pend Oreille will affect their late-spring and early-summer sales.

“What do people want when they move here? A side-by-side, a 7B license plate and a pontoon boat — that’s, like, the starter kit for everyone moving here,” said Karen Becks, owner of Alpine Mountain Cascade Moose Panhandle North Country Selkirk Tree Eagle Action Speed America Motor Sports, located on U.S. 95 adjacent to Meadow View Vista Mega Mini-Storage in the newly-amalgamated Saglegoma Business District. 

Others are looking on the bright side — particularly officials with the Transportation Department of Idaho, whose agency is currently reconstructing the iconic Long Bridge. According to officials, amid their survey of the wear-and-tear on the 40-plus-year-old, two-mile span, engineers discovered that the entire structure would need to come down within the next five years.

With the lake level reduction, construction crews will be able to tear down the bridge and rebuild it from the bottom up.

“This will be a great opportunity to expand and reinforce the Long Bridge, incorporating six lanes — three northbound and three southbound — with two roundabouts and an emergency mid-span helipad for crash response,” said TDI Roadway Commissioner Sid Wheeler from the agency’s offices in Meridian. “You’re all going to need it up there; there’s a lot of traffic headed your way.”

Clayton Rau is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on numerous blogs, social media locals forums and the papers used to wrap glassware at regional dollar stores.

*April Fools!

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