KEA, Landowners Collaborate to Heal Idaho's Fernan Lake

By: Cameron Cushing
Posted on:08/19/2016 Updated:08/31/2016

This past May, the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, with the help of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Nonpoint Source Management Program, stood up to the plate and decided to take on the goal of making Fernan Lake healthy again.

This past May, the Kootenai Environmental Alliance (KEA), with the help of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Nonpoint Source Management Program, stood up to the plate and decided to take on the goal of making Fernan Lake healthy again. That being said, Fernan Lake is sick.  The KEA newsletter, Perspectives, describes: “water quality has deteriorated in recent years due to large amounts of phosphorus-laden sediments running into Fernan Lake from historical logging, shoreline erosion and agricultural activities in the watershed.” In speaking with Executive Director of KEA, Adrienne Cronebaugh, past road construction that was designed to make Fernan Lake easier to access for the public and private landowners, unfortunately, increased erosion and the level of negative elements making its way into the lake as well.

Due to excess phosphorus sliding into the lake, it has triggered what Perspectives describes as “prolonged annual blue-green algae blooms.” These algae blooms have already claimed several family dogs and “may produce toxins capable of causing skin irritation or illness to humans.” Alongside direct contact, Fernan Lake feeds into the Coeur d’Alene aquafer. And outside of the public, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing direct effects on wildlife, if not already.

The private landowners that live right on Fernan’s shoreline and nearby are very concerned. With their concern they have been, literally, the KEA’s eyes in the sky, especially when the environmental organization was in first stages of testing the water quality. With some of the private landowner’s homes situated up on the mountains looking down on Fernan Lake, they were able to call Cronebaugh at a moment’s notice when algae blooms could be readily seen. This gave the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality a huge advantage when it came to being able to quickly and accurately test these blooms, and how they were and are degrading the water.

After discovering exactly what was happening to Fernan Lake, KEA’s first step was plants. “Planting a shoreline buffer along Fernan Lake is one important step in improving lake water quality,” states Kristin Larson of Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (Perspectives). Native plants of the Zone 5 and Zone 6 spectrum are the first crucial step to improving the shoreline erosion and decreasing “phosphorus-laden sediments” because of their root systems. These native plants, like Serviceberry and Woods Rose, will ultimately provide much needed shoreline vegetation and hopefully act as a natural phosphorus filtering system.  As Cronebaugh states, we “ultimately [want to] decrease the prevalence of these algae blooms that prohibit recreation and pose health risks to people, wildlife and pets.” This harks to Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and how today we are starting to see these negatively slow effects to the Earth’s environment due to human actions right on our door steps. While Nixon highlights how some things will be irreversible, there is still ample opportunity for us to get in front of some of these environmental issues, as the KEA has done in its attempts to heal Fernan Lake.

KEA’s near future goal is to plant along the majority of Fernan’s Lake shoreline. Without the help of the private landowners who knows if the KEA would had been able to even break ground towards making Fernan Lake healthy again this year. This restoration is important to the health of Kootenai County. The people of Kootenai cannot afford to allow phosphorus containing sediment to continue to readily make its way into the water of Fernan Lake without more devastating consequences occurring. As KEA leads the way to making this beautiful Northern Idaho lake healthy again, they will look to the private landowners and the public of Kootenai County to bring Fernan Lake back to its healthy roots.