SANDPOINT — Members of the Pend Oreille Basin Commission expressed hope Thursday that common ground can be reached regarding a Kalispel Tribe of Indians proposal to improve bull trout habitat below Albeni Falls Dam.
But commissioners expressed doubts that a late summer or early autumn drawdown of Lake Pend Oreille will provide meaningful help to bull trout and other cold-water fish species below the dam.
They also harbor concerns that an earlier drawdown could have detrimental effects on bull trout and other fish above the dam.
“We’re taking about a very small area between Box Canyon and Albeni Falls. The potential detriment to the fish upstream — where we’re talking about a much larger area and a greater deal of fish — is certainly something that would have to be taken into consideration,” Mitchell said during a commission teleconference.
Mitchell said the best way to aid bull trout below the dam could be to install a fish ladder, although she acknowledged that such infrastructure is quite costly.
Commissioner Brent Baker said he wants to be on the same side as the tribe, but agreed with Mitchell.
“The solution is not going to be drawing the water down from Lake Pend Oreille,” said Baker. “It’s a fish passage problem and solutions are going to be passage solutions.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Albeni Falls, is conducting a three-phase evaluation to try and determine whether water from the lake will be effective in reducing temperatures downstream of the dam.
Commissioner Doug Conde recommended that temperature work done by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and the Washington Department of Ecology also be evaluated in light of the Kalispel plan.
“There been a lot of modeling work that’s been accomplished by those agencies,” Conde said.
There is also worry an earlier-than-typical drawdown would impact the recreation season in Bonner County.
“That’s probably a situation that is not really a serious risk right now, but it’s something we need to be very concerned about,” said Ford Elsaesser, the commission’s chairman.
State Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said releases of water from the Dworshak Reservoir near Orofino have hampered recreation there.
“They are releasing water from Dworshak to the benefit of lowering temperature for downstream fish, but it’s had a pretty serious impact on their recreation industry down there,” Eskridge said.
Chip Corsi, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game’s Panhandle region supervisor, agreed, but pointed out water at Dworshak can be drawn at a deeper depth, which can have a meaningful effect on temperature but can’t be done on Lake Pend Oreille.
However, Corsi agreed the drafting on Dworshak has had an impact on boating.
“It definitely affects the recreation side of things,” Corsi said.
Elsaesser suggested the commission not take a position on the Kalispel proposal until members have a chance to meet with tribal officials in the next couple of months. Elsaesser noted that the commission and tribe have common goals, such as restoring the Clark Fork Delta and a fishery in the Priest River.
“We may very well have more in common with them that we realized,” Elsaesser said.
Deane Osterman, executive director of the Kalispel Natural Resource Department, sent the commission a letter on Thursday reminding the board that benefits and burdens must be shared across the basin.
“To date, these benefits and burdens have been balanced in a way that has inequitably degraded the Pend Oreille River and harmed the Tribe’s subsistence fishery,” Osterman said in the letter.