by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
The Senate Resources & Environment Committee introduced a bill Wednesday that would add state oversight to a controversial conservation measure proposed at the mouth of the Priest River in Bonner County.
The Priest Lake Outlet Dam is operated by the Idaho Department of Water Resources and is required by state law to maintain a certain water level elevation in the lake during the summer recreation season.
Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, presented Senate Bill 1021, which would amend that law to stipulate the existing dam is the only structure authorized to release water from the lake, and that no siphon, gravity bypass, or other bypass device may be constructed without prior approval from the legislature and the governor.
Warm surface waters flowing from the lake into the river have resulted in fish kills in recent summers. Idaho Fish and Game and the Kalispel Tribe have explored building a gravity siphon that would pull cold water from deeper in the lake and release it downstream, with the goal of cooling the river and improving fish habitat.
“We are basically not prohibiting any additional structures to be built in the future, but we are adding to Idaho code that we would want authorization for any outlet control structures added to the Priest Lake as it empties into the Priest River to be authorized by this legislature and the governor,” Herndon said.
The senator said previous studies relating to the siphon project were funded under the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement, which is part of the federal license under which Avista Utilities operates Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams upstream of Lake Pend Oreille.
“The concern of residents of District 1 is that this [siphon] could proceed using those funds, without the legislature being involved, as the studies have proceeded,” Herndon said.
The Senate Resources Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to introduce the bill.
In the same hearing, lawmakers also interviewed two appointees to the Lakes Commission, an advisory body based in Bonner County for issues related to the Lake Pend Oreille and Priest Lake basins.
John Ford Elsaesser – who has served on the commission since its inception in 2003 – said the body has not taken a position on the siphon proposal, but added he personally considers the project to be dead.
“There’s skepticism from a practicality standpoint, as well as the fact that the Priest Lake community is pretty organized against it,” Elsaesser said. “It just seemed like such a heavy lift to do without being certain it would work.”
“We are not cutting off the ability of this project to happen in the future as conceived, but we would be asking the legislature and governor to be involved in that process.” Herndon said.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.