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Abundant snow provides high quality water. Let's not squander it

This winter weather has been challenging. In early December was the threat of frozen machinery and pipes. Mid-December, snow fell in daily abundance. Roofs caved and chimneys toppled. Power outages, flights cancelled, school closures and snowed-in driveways were minor inconveniences compared to the people who lost lives in avalanches. The January thaw transformed six feet of snow into treacherous tons that further jeopardized roofs and ran Zambonies down driveways to polish the ice. If you don’t have a story about either or all of those incidents, you (lucky dog) must have been hanging on a beach in the Baja.

Our best story occurred during the January thaw. We found that a heavy-duty rubber sled was the perfect tool when moving contents of two freezers out of our flooded shop and through the calf-deep water of the garden path. The sled became a boat that could float 80 lbs at a time.  I tried to keep summer greenery in mind,

For it is our winter weather that nourishes the lush, astounding variety of grasses, fungus, forbs, brush and trees that flourish here. And this wide range of plant life, in turn, supports another astounding variety of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals. We live in the midst of a near rain forest, without the incessant rain of the Oregon Coast.

Mountain snows lingering until late June slowly add water to the soil, which drips through subterranean cracks, and gushes out in surprising springs. The water flows as achingly cold creeks. The creeks tumble and merge to form the winding valley streams.

Our winters make agriculture possible in the well-watered valleys and even on the big clay benches. It is our winter weather that replenishes our wells. It is our lifeblood.

Recent fire studies demonstrate that the most consistent predictor of summer fires is the winter snow pack. A low snowpack means higher risk of forest fires; conversely, the deeper the snow, the less chance of devastating fires.

Think of the winter weather struggles as your water tax. We have been physically taxed by shoveling, plowing, and blowing. Nights of worrying about the ice jam that prevents the snow from sliding off a roof is mentally taxing. Each of us is prepaying our bill to receive the benefits of clean abundant water. Boots Reynolds shared this concept in one of his From the Mouth of the River columns when he suggested the apples eaten by bears from your orchard should be considered land taxes.

These dues we pay each winter give all of us a right to be intensely interested in the quality and quantity of water, our most valuable resource. In the water impoundments behind the Thompson Falls dam and behind the Noxon Rapids dam, heavy metals have built up. Heavy metals—from up river mines—have built up to the extent that these toxins are showing up in fish.  We are told to limit our ingestion of fish from these waters.

In light of two huge SuperFund sites along the Clark Fork, including the costly removal of the polluted soils deposited behind the crumbling Bonner dam, it is incomprehensible the Montana Department of Environmental Quality would have permitted Revett’s Rock Creek Mine to discharge up to three million gallons a day of water requiring perpetual treatment to remove arsenic, ammonia, nitrates and heavy metals. The market-driven mining industry cannot be trusted to be around for the long haul. And perpetual is a long time. The water that will endlessly flow from the mine’s adit and seep from the mines tailings pond will have to be endlessly treated.

Members of Cabinet Resource Group in northwest Montana have been closely following the proposed mine’s plans, attending meetings, writing letters, giving testimony and asking hard questions since 1978. One of most effective things that the 150-member group accomplished was the birth of Rock Creek Alliance in Sandpoint. RCA has done a tremendous job of alerting northern Idaho of the looming threat to Lake Pond Orielle. It is due to the vigilance and stubbornness of these two groups that Montana State Supreme Court looked at DEQ’s permission and ruled that it was inadequate to “analyze the degradation that would occur to Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River due to wastewater discharge from the mine.”

This decision is important to everyone living in the Clark Fork Valley downstream of the mouth of Rock Creek. An unintended, beneficial result of the Cabinet Gorge dam was to raise the water table, which in turn made valley wells reliable all summer. Does anyone want to gamble with the purity of their wells? Those living in the lower Clark Fork Valley have learned that January generally brings a big thaw. At intervals of ten years or so, the tax collector throws a big rain-on-snow event. We used to call them ‘hundred-year floods’. The six-inches of rain drenching six-feet of snow in early January would have been sloshing around a toxic tailings impoundment and pouring out of the adit.

As taxpayers, we have an obligation to guarantee that our assessment will not be squandered. We have all paid a high price this winter to get our summer’s high quality water.


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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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