About a month ago, I visited Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper Shannon Williamson in Sandpoint. We met at the Waterkeeper Alliance Conference in North Carolina earlier in the summer. She and Steve Holt, who is President of the Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper Board of Directors, took me out on their boat with the Mayor of Sandpoint, Shelby Rognstad. Shannon is also the City Council President for Sandpoint. The lake was as pristine as Shannon had described it to me when we first met. This is Idaho's largest lake with a depth of 1,150 feet, and the water is so clear and clean. The name means in the shape of an earring, which is a reference to its unusual shape. We went swimming near here and I was afraid when I saw my dog Takoda drinking the water, as he almost died from drinking water in Florida. Shannon said all the dogs drink the water in Lake Pend Oreille and they are all fine. I was still afraid to let him, as I didn't know if he would understand that it was okay to drink the water on this pristine lake in northern Idaho but not in Florida.
The image above was taken on the recently completed Pend Oreille Bay Trail, which runs along the edge of the lake for two miles beginning near City Beach. Takoda and I loved the trail. We met so many people, dogs, and children walking along it. The lake is the center of Sandpoint life and yet right on the other side of this lake are tracks for the BNSF Railway. Northern Idaho is called the funnel, because so many rail lines converge here. 50-70 trains pass through here every day (according to an estimate in the Bosie Weekly in 2014) and recent proposals by coal and oil companies would double oil traffic passing through Northern Idaho every day. One of the proposed terminals in Longview, WA, the Millennium Bulk Terminal, would increase rail traffic by 18 trains per day in order to export the estimated 44 million tons of cal per year. All current and proposed trains must pass over a one-mile crossing of the lake. I noticed that the coal trains did not have covers and Shannon said that was because it was too costly. Every year, they partially draw Lake Pend Oreille down to prevent flooding and for energy usage. Shannon sends out volunteers who pick up pieces of coal from the lake. The coal on the trains is flammable she noted and is dangerous when it lands in the nearby forests.
The image above is of a container train, but this is the same bridge oil and coal trains carry. Please read "Deadly Crossings: Neglected Bridges and Exploding Oil Trains by Waterkeeper Alliance staff and ForestEthics: https://waterkeeper.org/app/uploads/2016/01/Deadly-Crossing-Web-Version.pdf. The situation in Sandpoint, and in many other locations around the country is a time bomb. Not only would an oil spill or explosion impair these pristine waters, an explosion could destroy downtown Sandpoint.
Above is a kayaker in Sand Creek. To the left of the image is a walking trail and then elevated train tracks. To the right is downtown Sandpoint. Just in front of the kayaker is Cedar Street Bridge, a covered bridge with restaurants and shops.
I took this image of a train carrying Bakken oil through the restaurant window while I was eating lunch on the Cedar Creek Bridge. This is how close the trains run–very scary and highly disturbing.
This replica of the Statue of Liberty is on a point that juts out from City Beach. Families in Sandpoint flock here to swim and boat and recreate. Yet when I saw this it struck me as ironic since people's right to interact with clean water is being threatened every day, even here in this pristine and remote section of the country. I asked Shannon why railroads always seem to be so close to waterways and she said it is because they usually followed the path of the water during construction, since it was flatter and easier to put in the tracks. Now the aging tracks are falling apart and more and more waterways are at risk as the Waterkeeper Alliance report details.
These innocent days of sailing and letting the currents and breeze guide us without worry are nearing an end. It is so important to be able to go out and feel in harmony with the elements of nature and enjoy our environment, but we have to take action to prevent disasters before they occur or fishing, boating, swimming, and even drinking out water are at risk.
Looking through the trees of this lovely shoreline out into the lake, I was saddened to think that all this pristine beauty could be destroyed in a few moments by a train mishap, and we know they happen. With so many passing through here each day, the risk is already high enough. Increasing the number of trains only increases the risk.
Just past the end of the Bay Trail on Lake Pend Oreille is this feature the locals have named Black Rock. It is a heap of slag left over from the Panhandle Smelting and Refining Company, which closed in 1909. This rock does pose some water quality risks as it crumbles into the lake and it is close to the area where dogs often swim at the end of the trail.
There is one part of Lake Pend Oreille, Boyer Slough, which has very comprised water quality–some of the worst in the staten and sky high in nutrients. It is near this wastewater discharge site for the Kootenai Ponderay Sewer District. When we drove the boat into the bay near the slough, some residents were coming out and they saw my camera. They said they were glad someone was photographing it. No doubt it annoys residents to have to see, smell, and try to motor through water like what is shown in the image below. The watermilfoil was so thick that the water visibility was greatly reduced and we couldn't see more than the tops of the plants. The many boat engines chopped it up beneath the surface, so it appeared like a thick soup.
However, in addition to the discharge from the wastewater plant, the Lake and slough also receive a lot of nutrients from the fertilizers used on the residents' lawns.
Shannon works tirelessly to file lawsuits, monitor water quality, and educate and engage the local community. She monitors both stormwater quality and water quality in the lake and works with citizen volunteers. As part of her water quality efforts, she also advocates the use of fewer pesticides in combatting invasive species such as the watermilfoil that we saw in such abundance in Boyer Slough. To reduce the use of pesticides, she has collaborated with the City of Sandpoint since 2012 to use diver assisted hand-pulling and the installation of benthic barriers.
Shannon's son Finn was very proud to know how to handle the water testing tubes. I was impressed that she had her kids helping her, since children are out future caretakers of the water and I am hoping they will do a better job than most of their parents–Shannon excluded of course.
This is what the propellor looked like after one 30-minute trip in the Slough. We had to stop as soon as we got out, so Shannon could clean it off before entering the main body of the lake and spreading the watermilfoil there. Throughout the lakes I visited around the country, the importance of washing boats and cleaning debris before going from one lake to another is repeatedly stressed by local advocacy groups and signage. Thankfully, this is a very small area and the waters are stagnant and don't mix too much with the rest of the lake.
Shannon, Steve, Shelby, and Lake Pend Oreille board memebers and citizen volunteers are all focused on keeping Lake Pend Oreille clean for future generations to enjoy. No one wants enjoying the water to be a distant dream or something that only looks beautiful during sunsets in dimmer light. Lake Pend Oreille is a jewel in northern Idaho that deserves to be preserved.