by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
There’s less than one week left to apply for a new grant to help prevent an ecological chain reaction that could devastate one of Idaho’s most iconic lakes.
The $2 million in funding is available specifically for shovel-ready projects that will reduce the flow of phosphorus from the Coeur d’Alene Basin into Lake Coeur d’Alene.
The Coeur d’Alene Lake Advisory Committee was created by Gov. Brad Little last month to prioritize projects for the program. The nine-member group consists of government officials and interest group representatives from Coeur d’Alene and Kootenai County.
Nutrients like phosphorus enter the lake through discrete point sources like drain pipes and wastewater treatment plants. They also come from diffuse nonpoint sources such as sediment, animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides that are washed downstream by rainwater.
Point sources of phosphorus can be addressed by treating wastewater before it is sent downstream. Nonpoint sources can be mitigated by restoring wetlands and placing trees and shrubs as buffers. Good forest management practices and reduced usage of fertilizers and pesticides can also help.
“Over the last several years we’ve seen increasing trends in phosphorus, which is certainly concerning,” Department of Environmental Quality Regional Administrator Dan McCracken told the committee in August. “What we do know, though, is that we need to make reductions in, particularly, the human-influenced load of phosphorus in the lake.”
Nutrients like phosphorus are food for seasonal algae blooms, which consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. When the algae dies, it falls to the bottom of the water and decomposes, where bacteria consume the organic material and convert oxygen into carbon dioxide. Increased nutrients in the water can cause out-of-control algal growth and throw off that ecological balance.
Harmful algal blooms are a concern in bodies of water all over Idaho and the country. However, Lake Coeur d’Alene is of unique concern because of the millions of tons of sediment in the Coeur d’Alene River and the bottom of the lake contaminated by lead and other heavy metals from historic mining in the Silver Valley.
“In its current condition, it’s primarily an ecological issue,” McCracken said. “It’s somewhat of a delicate situation in that the water quality of the lake itself controls the stability of those metals at the bottom of the lake.”
The EPA-administered Bunker Hill Mining & Metallurgical Complex Superfund site consists of a 21-square-mile rectangle around the cities of Kellogg and Smelterville, plus the surrounding Coeur d’Alene Basin.
The Superfund program contributes to cleanup of the basin, but not the lake itself, which has been managed by the State of Idaho and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe under the Lake Management Plan. In 2019, the tribe withdrew from the agreement and Little ordered a third-party review of lake water quality data.
If algae grows out of control in Lake Coeur d’Alene, an excess of plant material will fall to the bottom of the lake and use up too much of the available oxygen, which in turn would release the toxic minerals — currently trapped in the lakebed sediment — into the water column.
“This is what we’re trying to avoid,” DEQ limnologist Craig Cooper told the committee. “We can avoid that by minimizing the amount of phosphorus that we get into the lake through runoff.”
The committee saw several examples of existing phosphorus-reducing projects in the basin, ranging from municipal wastewater and stormwater management to riparian creek and floodplain restoration.
The deadline for project proposals is next Wednesday, Sept. 21. Funding applications should be sent to Lake Management Plan Supervisor Jamie Brunner at the DEQ Coeur d’Alene Regional Office.
Brunner told Idaho Reports she had not received any official proposals as of Tuesday.
“With such an aggressive timeline, I’m guessing most people will take right up until the deadline to put together their applications,” Brunner said. “We have had a number of calls with project ideas, so I’m confident we will see a good pool of applications.”
The timeline is aggressive because the committee has been instructed to prioritize short-term projects that can be completed by 2023. If projects require work to be done during the winter, officials want applicants to have the opportunity to do it this winter rather than waiting a year.
The funding is available to cities, conservation groups, private landowners, the tribe — essentially anyone other than the federal government.
Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council Secretary-Treasurer Gene James, who is a member of the committee, said that the existence of actual funding for projects was a promising step, and he hopes this isn’t another situation of kicking the can down the road when it comes to the health of the lake.
“What’s the central figure in our region here that we have? It’s this lake. It’s been the center of our universe, the center of our transportation, the center of our gatherings for thousands upon thousands of years,” James said. “If it dies, my people won’t survive.”
DEQ staff will score the project applications on a number of criteria, then the committee will rank the projects and prioritize them for funding by the department.
Phosphorus reduction is the most critical factor. Projects will receive higher marks if they show a strong cost-benefit ratio, short implementation timelines, low maintenance and operation costs, and support from stakeholders and partners in the community. The money can also be used as matching funds for other program applications.
Applications can be sent to Brunner by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to her at the DEQ Coeur d’Alene Regional Office, 2110 Ironwood Parkway, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 83815. The deadline is Wednesday, Sept. 21.
The committee will hold meetings to review the project applications on Oct. 20 and to rank them for funding priority on Nov. 17.
The committee is part of Little’s “Building Idaho’s Future” initiative to invest part of the state’s record-breaking budget surplus in long-term infrastructure investments. The $2 million was allocated to DEQ in this year’s Senate Bill 1188.