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County Opts for Poison for Lake Pend Oreille

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by Jane Fritz


The latest environmental conflict in Bonner County isn't over what constitutes the problem; it's about the best way to solve it. Nearly everyone - resource managers, landowners, and lake users - agrees that Eurasian watermilfoil in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed is a serious problem. The aquatic plant is an invader species that has worked its way up the Pend Oreille River and taken root in the shallow bays of Lake Pend Oreille. When the weed colonizes, it can choke out native aquatic vegetation, diminish fish habitat, and surround boat docks with thick mats that makes swimming from them dangerous, especially for small children. Left unchecked, it can create a biologically dead zone, robbing oxygen from the water, suffocating plants and fish, and decreasing sunlight which shades out beneficial aquatic plants. Once it infests waterways, it can spread like a cancer to other waters.

According to June Bergquist, regional water quality compliance officer for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, how it arrived in the Pend Oreille watershed in the first place was most likely as a hitchhiker on a boat coming from some infested lake in the region. Several lakes in Washington have battled Eurasian watermilfoil, as well as those in Kootenai County. More persistent than the native northern milfoils, it is a biologically tenacious species that spreads primarily by fragmentation caused by wind, waves and recreational activities. The smallest weed fragment can attach to boat props, fishing gear, oars, and paddles in addition to the undersides of boats. When carried from one place to another, the undesired plant part can establish roots and grow quickly into a new plant and colonize. 

With the increase of recreational boating in the watershed, the public bears a major responsibility for the growth of this invader weed. Educational signage asking boaters to clean their crafts on shore after lake and river use has not been a significant deterrent in the spread of the unwanted species. Bergquist says. Nor has asking boaters to stay out of milfoil growth areas, especially around docks and in front of lakeshore homes. The problem has become so bad that long-term injury to the beneficial uses of the water resource could result. “People are pretty concerned,” she says. She receives calls from lakeshore homeowners who ask if they can use chemicals to kill the non-native plants around their docks. Other people take matters into their own hands and dump pesticides into the water without a DEQ permit. 

It’s an issue for county government, so last month Bonner County sought a permit from DEQ to use an EPA-approved herbicide to kill milfoil colonies in two areas in the Pend Oreille River as part of a its five-year strategic plan to contain the problem plant.

“It's something new; they've tried all sorts of different things,” Bergquist says, referring to the county's experimental plan to use a systemic herbicide. Following the letter of the state water quality law, she believes the county is making a decision that is squarely in the public interest despite the fact that some landowners draw their drinking water directly from the river or the lake. Although she agrees that “Herbicides are a last resort,” with an exemption given to the county from water quality regulations, she sees the scheduled treatment as a temporary situation like at Spirit Lake, where the Eurasian watermilfoil problem has been curtailed significantly. 

But this isn't the first time that Bonner County has used chemical treatment around the lake and it's not likely to be the last. For the past three years, the county weed department has worked to control Eurasian milfoil. Perch and Oden Bays at Sunnyside have been treated with a contact herbicide, diquat bromide, that killed the crowns of the plant, but the roots were not affected and so the weeds grew back. This year the county is experimenting with an aquatic version of the systemic herbicide triclopyr, called Renovate 3. This time the chemical will be taken up by the entire plant. 

“This is a miserable project,” says Brad Bluemer, county weed supervisor, “but doing nothing is unacceptable to us.” He says that a non-chemical alternative - diver dredging - had been used previously at Albeni Cove near Priest River and at Sandpoint City Beach. Mechanical harvesting of the plants have failed to contain the invasive weed.

According to research studies on triclopyr, the county will likely have to treat the same areas again next year to avoid re-infestation. In fact, the county's strategic plan calls for treatment of the same areas several years in a row before containment can be considered a success. In addition, selection of new sites for treatment will occur yearly. The county's plan is one of continuity and consistency with the treatment goal for each site being less than four years. 

For now, the top priority sites identified for milfoil containment include public use areas like parks, boat ramps, and camping locations of all types. Most of the Eurasian milfoil debris is found on the north, northeast, and eastern shorelines. Altogether, 18 sites totaling nearly 400 acres are scheduled for treatment by the county as part of its five-year plan, including previously treated sites, Sandpoint City Beach, the Sand Creek Inlet, Springy Point State Park, Riley Creek State Park, Kootenai Bay, Ellisport Bay, and the public boat docks in Hope. 

Until recently, few people opposed the use of chemicals, something that surprised Bluemer. On the other hand, he says, “thousands of people, mostly lakeshore owners, have demanded the (county's) help to do something.”

Bluemer's original schedule for 2004 herbicide application was early this summer—the prime time to kill the plants as they are actively growing. Three new sites were targeted: Thama Slough near Priest River, the Pend Oreille River between Memorial Field and the Highway 95 Long Bridge in Sandpoint, and Ellisport Bay in Hope. But before the treatment ensued, Jacqueline Smith of Clark Fork, who saw a news brief on the front page, called the county decrying the use of poison in the lake.

“Fighting evil with evil makes no sense,” says Smith. Made aware of the county's plans, she did research on the Internet, wrote a letter to the editor in the Daily Bee, and organized a petition campaign. She asked why a public hearing wasn't being held to inform residents of the county's plans to use poison in the lake. Meetings of the County Commission, where the treatment plans were approved, are held during the work day, and are not sufficient for public involvement and response, claims Smith. 

The county held an informational meeting on the evening of June 30 and brought a representative from SePRO Corporation, the maker of Renovate 3, to speak to the public about the herbicide. Sandpoint Community Hall hosted more than 100 people—about half in support of, and half opposed to, herbicide use. Bluemer drew up the agenda which included this curious item: “Safety: Who do you believe?” with the comment, “We must make choices. Milfoil can kill you and we have valid information the herbicide use proposed will not.” This kind of predisposition toward chemical use over alternative milfoil controls troubles Smith. (Note: The comment, “Milfoil can kill you…” is in reference to the danger the weed can present to children swimming in the thick mats off of docks. To this reporter's knowledge, no children have died as a result of Eurasian watermilfoil, but there is a potential risk for serious harm in heavily infested areas.)

“A lot of people came away from the meeting feeling confident about the safety (of Renovate),” says Bluemer. Indeed, there were lakeshore residents in the room, who did heartily applaud the planned use of chemicals. One longtime resident even commented that he would like to see the entire lake treated with herbicides as soon as possible. Bluemer explained that he trusts the company's safety studies and has no fear of health impacts from triclopyr and other herbicides.

“People take more risk handling gasoline than this chemical,” he says. He also doesn't believe that there are health concerns associated with any use of herbicides. “Where are the medical claims?” he asks.

But many in the audience, like Smith, had legitimate concerns about health impacts and were concerned about what they heard being called a “safe poison” to use in the lake. There was also misleading information from the SePRO representative, Scott Schuler. When asked about the licensure of Renovate 3, and the lack of independent studies on long-term toxicity, he said triclopyr had been used safely in aquatic applications since 1988 and had been adequately tested. Yet the registration for aquatic use of triclopyr, under the brand name of Renovate 3, wasn’t granted by the Environmental Protection Agency until 2002.

Chronic exposure was studied for only 60 days because, according to the EPA and the Washington State Department of Health, triclopyr breaks down quickly in water and is relatively short-lived. The EPA does not consider the herbicide to cause cancer, birth defects, or genetic mutations. Nor is it considered likely to cause reproductive or developmental effects in mammals at or near concentrations encountered during normal human use. In natural water, sunlight and microorganisms rapidly degrade the chemical. Residues of triclopyr typically are not detected more than a couple of weeks after treatment. 

These same agencies consider it prudent public health advice to minimize exposure to triclopyr regardless of its known toxicity. Several people at the meeting voiced concern that a 60-day safe period is hardly adequate as cancers and other diseases sometimes take years to show up. 

Like phenoxy herbicides, triclopyr imitates a plant growth hormone, auxin, and kills plants by inducing distorted and disorderly growth. According to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides in Eugene, Ore., studies done on the same triethylamine salt, an herbicide under a different name—Garlon 3A—manufactured by SePRO's parent company, Dow Chemical, also shows that triclopyr is corrosive to the eyes and can cause allergic skin reactions. 

There were some at the meeting who had experience with Renovate 3, including Dale Gill from Spokane who has a summer cabin at Camp Bay. He is a retired biologist and also serves on the committee studying near shore pollution at Sacheen Lake in eastern Washington. He said that triclopyr, under the brand name of Garlon 3A, was used and the American Bittern, a native water bird, was severely impacted. Hearing this, others in the crowd wanted to know about the impacts on our fishery and on deer, waterfowl and other wildlife who would drink or use the water after application. Still others pressed Bluemer into explaining why the chemical alternative was the only one being considered. 

In mid-July, the county announced there was not yet sufficient growth to require chemical treatment of milfoil colonies in the treatment sites they selected. The entire project was put on hold until this month. The milfoil has flourished and weather permitting, two of the areas will be treated this week—Memorial Field to the Long Bridge and Thama Slough near Priest River. The third site, Ellisport Bay near Hope, does not need chemical treatment after all. Last year's winter kill was significant enough to keep the milfoil from growing. But the county still plans to use the entire 400 gallons of DEQ-permitted herbicide, costing the county around $100 per gallon, on the two Pend Oreille River sites. September 22 is the planned application date. 

At press time, Leslie Marshall, director of the Public Works Department, said the treatment could be postponed or aborted. A windy (and wavy) lake would upset the accuracy of the application being made by boat. And the plants might be too mature to be treated since SePRO recommends application during “active growing” periods—late spring or early summer. An assessment on whether or not to proceed is underway.

If treatment proceeds, bright orange signs will be posted at treatment sites and within the quarter mile impact zone. A popular swimming area, Dog Beach, is within that zone. A five-day restriction will be posted on water consumption and irrigation but no restrictions are put on swimming, even though Washington state keeps people—especially children—out of the water for at least 12 hours. 

Marshall will make sure her dog isn't anywhere near the treatment site or in the impact zone, but says by the weekend the water will be safe for all uses.

There are many people besides Smith who hope the herbicide treatment doesn't go forward. Just ask anybody shopping for organic produce at the Farmer's Market in Sandpoint: dumping chemicals into the lake is a bad idea.

“It's not wise to intentionally add chemicals designed to kill living things to our waterways,” says Tammy Powell, another local organizer against herbicide use. Powell has joined Smith and started a group called the Coalition to Stop the Poisoning of Pend Oreille. They have gathered more than 400 signatures in opposition to chemical controls and have delivered them to the County Commission. There has been no response to the delivery of these signed petitions by any of the commissioners, nor did they discuss it at their September 15 meeting. Instead, they continue to recommend that the county adhere to their strategic five-year plan whose mission statement claims that the county will use “the safest, most efficient and cost effective” controls even if that means chemicals in the lake.

Smith and Powell don't think the county has given enough time to considering and researching non-toxic methods before using toxic ones. The cost of mechanical harvesting, or diver dredging, is comparable to the cost of chemical treatment, says Marshall, but it takes longer and there are few companies to hire for this service. They see it as a perfect entrepreneurial opportunity for Bonner County. 

There are other non-toxic controls besides the plant's physical removal. The native northern weevil will feed on the invader milfoil to eradicate it. Installing bottom barriers around swimming areas to inhibit growth is also an option, although this would also smother beneficial aquatic plants.

Poisoning the lake is experimental, Bluemer says. “Our objective is to learn from this.” But Smith and Powell worry that chemicals are easier to use, and if residents give the county the go ahead to use chemicals, they will at every opportunity. The chemical paradigm is entrenched in Bonner County, and with most of the resource managers deferring to Brad Bluemer's expertise, it will be a hard one to change. “Poisoning our environment is just not acceptable,” says Powell, One thing is certain: this issue will raise its polarized head again next year.


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Environment, boating, Lake Pend Oreille, eurasian watermilfoil

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