Clear Water: Can Native Americans Save Northern Idaho’s Most Popular Lake?

Henry SiJohn, square-faced and bespectacled, peered across the broad waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene, the spiritual center of his Coeur d’Alene tribe. The water shimmered a deep blue, making for a pretty backdrop for the numerous weddings held at a posh neighboring golf resort. Once promoted for national park status, the lake has stoked the tourism economy in Idaho’s Panhandle. But SiJohn realized that the lake’s outward beauty belied a troubling fact: At its bottom sits 72 million tons of toxic mining waste.

The waters of Idaho’s Lake Coeur D’Alene are amazingly clear, but the clarity is the result of 72 million tons of toxic zinc mining waste sitting on the bottom. The Coeur D”Alene tribe is pushing for a total cleanup, but local civic boosters object. Idaho Travel Council

A legacy of a century of mining in the Silver Valley 40 miles upstream, the zinc deposited in the lake has upset the natural balance, caused crippling algal growth and made the water unnaturally clear. Ironically, that water clarity helps attract tourists.

The lake’s heavy metals—including cadmium and lead—pose a risk to fish and other aquatic life, though not to people using most public beaches or drinking its water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Upstream from the lake, thousands of migrating trumpeter swans have died after eating lead-tainted foliage, which paralyzes their upper digestive tracts.

“We look upon this land as still ours, and it hurts us to see so much contamination and pollution,” SiJohn, a tribal elder and council member of the 539-square-mile reservation around Plummer, Idaho, said in the tribe’s 1993 film Paradise In Peril.

SiJohn decided to spend his retirement years fighting to restore the basin because, as he often said, “This is the place where the old ones walked.” For 10,000 years, the tribe’s namesake lake served as a spiritual center, a place where newborns were bathed and elders buried. So SiJohn spurred his tiny tribe—with fewer than 2,000 members—to take on some of the world’s largest mining companies, the state of Idaho and business interests.

The tribe took its battle to federal court in the early 1990s, filing two lawsuits—one to say the lake belongs to the tribe, the other to force mining companies to pay to restore it. “If we control the lake, we can clean it up,” SiJohn said. The tribe now owns the bottom one-third of the sprawling lake, as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the tribe’s claim of ownership last June.

Meanwhile, a judge is expected to rule on whether multinational mining company Asarco must pay to clean up the Coeur d”Alene basin. (Other mining companies, struggling financially, already settled out of court.) With those legal issues out of the way, a question remains: How should Idaho’s popular lake be restored?

When the EPA proposed declaring the lake a Superfund site, fierce objections arose from business leaders in the lakeside resort town of Coeur d’Alene (population 30,000). Antique shops dot its tourist area, whose highlight is the four-star, four-diamond Couer D’Alene Resort, where a premiere fireplace room can run $438 nightly with golf privileges. “It is incredible, being that the lake is as beautiful and safe as it is, that you can say things that would hurt us as a community,” Jerry Jaeger, president of Hagadone Hospitality, which runs Coeur D”Alene Resort, said at a public meeting last year.

Mary Jane Nearman, the EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10 project manager, is accustomed to worse comments. She passes by the occasional yard sign in the Idaho Panhandle that reads: “Just Say No to the EPA.” At issue is the agency’s plan to clean up the sprawling watershed, which includes the lake and points upstream. About a half-hour’s drive upstream from the well-kept streets outside Coeur D”Alene Resort is the dusty, rundown Silver Valley, home to a 21-square-mile Superfund mining site and the notorious source of the mining pollution that plagues the lake.

“We certainly hear a wide range of opinions. What we try to do is listen very carefully, and also look very closely at what the potential risks might be,” says Nearman, who emphasizes that Lake Coeur d”Alene is “beautiful” and “a great place to go on vacation.”

The EPA now proposes to leave the job of restoring the lake to the state, local governments and the tribe. That thrills civic boosters like Bret Bowers, who points out that the lake’s zinc and phosphate levels have dropped. “Lake Coeur d’Alene is in great shape,” maintains Bowers, who manages Community Leaders for EPA Accountability Now (CLEAN), whose office is in the local chamber of commerce.

But environmentalist John Osborn is concerned. “The EPA has not taken the hard look at the lake that they need to,” says Osborn, a Spokane physician and conservation chairman of the Sierra Club chapter covering Eastern Washington and Idaho.

For one thing, a cleanup plan should require regrowing heavily logged forests above the Silver Valley, says Osborn. That way, the trees can soak up rainwater that at times washes toxins downstream—eventually threatening Lake Coeur d”Alene and even Washington State. Osborn fears that “there has been insufficient work done by the EPA on the lake because of the political pressure and opposition.”

The tribe initially hoped to draw federal tax dollars from the Superfund program to clean up the lake, but it now seems to be throwing its energy behind a Lake Management Plan that it developed. Put simply, everyone around the lake would be expected to do everything possible to prevent nutrients from getting into the lake—such as lawn fertilizers or agricultural pollutants. The idea is to keep the chemical state at the lake’s bottom stable so metals won’t be released into the water through complex chemical interactions.

It’s simple in concept, but complicated to carry out. Lots of people would have to toe the line. Foresters would be expected to build swales for new roads to prevent dirt from flowing into the lake. Boaters would be expected to not dump wastewater into the lake. Builders would need to follow stringent rules on the kinds of slopes they could build on for lakeside properties. “It contemplates hundreds of activities,” admits Phil Cernera, the tribe’s restoration manager.

Civic boosters back the plan, which the EPA says would be implemented by the tribe, state, city and county governments. The EPA is expected to issue a final cleanup plan for the greater Coeur d’Alene basin in the near future. Meanwhile, Idaho’s congressional delegation is pushing to bring home a special appropriation of $250 million in federal (non-Superfund) tax dollars for restoration.

When exactly will Lake Coeur d’Alene be safe again for fish to swim? It certainly won’t be soon enough for Henry SiJohn, because he passed away in 1999.