Logging, floods push metals downstream

  • Runoff from clearcut flows into North Fork of Coeur d'Alene

    Mike Mihelich

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Heavy metals don't recognize state boundaries. That's why some people in Spokane, Wash., 30 miles downstream from Lake Coeur d'Alene, are worried.

"The metals are coming this way, and we hope to slow them down so they don't also poison the Columbia River Basin," says Mark Solomon, director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council.

Solomon wants to contain the heavy metals forever in Lake Coeur d'Alene. Zinc, which destroys aquatic life, flows freely through the lake water, while lead, cadmium and mercury sink to the bottom after oxidizing with sediment.

But metals on the lake bottom may not be permanently entombed. Low oxygen levels in the water, caused by fertilizers, dead plants, bark from old logging operations, and garbage and human waste, can release metals back into the water.

That worries Solomon, since the Lake Coeur d'Alene Basin aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for the 300,000 residents of Spokane. "The more we learn about lead and its ability to harm the human body - no level is acceptable," he says.

Heavy floods can also sweep lake sediments downstream. Last February, a series of winter storms pummeled the watershed and sent floodwaters into towns downstream. Health officials estimate that in one day alone, 136,000 pounds of lead entered Lake Coeur d'Alene.

Barry Rosenberg, director of Forest Watch, an arm of the nonprofit Inland Empire group, says flooding has become worse in recent years due to extensive logging in Idaho's Panhandle.

"The Forest Service destroyed this major river system with 30 years of cutting," Rosenberg says. "In a naturally flowing watershed there wouldn't be abnormal runoffs, and the flushing of the heavy metals into and out of the lake wouldn't be as great. What that forest needs is a major restoration project."

Rosenberg says the Panhandle National Forest is planning new cuts despite admissions they will further damage watersheds. Forest Service officials say the timber sales will raise funding for road and stream restoration work.

Not everyone agrees with the warnings of some environmental groups. A recent editorial in the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review chastised the Inland Empire Public Lands Council for using a federal grant to finance a video warning of the migration of lead down the Spokane River. The video was mailed to 10,000 Spokane residents.

Editor John Webster called the campaign a "scare tactic, a propagandist's lie, to imply that contamination levels threaten human life throughout the drainage." As evidence he cited the fact that "there are no human bodies lining the Spokane River or the shores of Lake Coeur d'Alene."

High Country News Classifieds