It’s a mystery worthy of investigation by J.J. Gittes.
That character, as memorably played by Jack Nicholson in the 1974 movie classic “Chinatown,” would be just the private eye to find out who really wants Lake Pend Oreille’s water, and why.
It’s a question with a significant base of concern from recreationalists to environmentalists to property owners – anyone who values this waterway.
In “Chinatown,” Nicholson chased the bad guys around California while getting beat up, romanced and having his nose sliced open before discovering the truth: The bureaucrats were stealing water. The film mirrors the real-life California Water Wars in the early 20th century, during which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power succeeded in siphoning off most of the Owens River. By 1926, Owens Lake was nearly dry.
So what’s behind the modern-day water grab for Lake Pend Oreille? The facts are these:
- Several government agencies are quietly working on plans to open the Albeni Falls Dam during the summer months.
- The Albeni Falls Dam is the principal source of regulating lake levels. Early opening will lower the lake noticeably, affecting recreation, access, water quality, scenic appeal, shorelines and property values.
- Other bodies of water throughout the nation have suffered significantly in economic impact from similar draw-downs.
- The official reason given for the latest tampering with Lake Pend Oreille is to improve downstream water temperature for bull trout and other aquatic species in the Pend Oreille River. The Kalispel Tribe has been enlisted to this effect.
- The operation is underway by the Federal Columbia River Power System, or FCRPS, a government consortium of the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.
- Albeni Falls Dam is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to the Corps’ website, up to 42,000 kilowatts of electricity is carried to the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) switchyard near the dam. BPA distributes and sells electricity to public and private utilities. Power generated at Albeni Falls is transmitted through the BPA grid to many regional locations, not only Idaho but also to Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.
- Manipulation of Lake Pend Oreille’s water levels would generate millions of dollars in downstream electrical output, according to the BPA.
- The BPA has had a recent run of embarrassing events: In 2013, federal investigators found that BPA managers misapplied hiring rules, placing military veterans at a disadvantage, and threatened on-staff whistleblowers. The agency’s administrator of just six months, Bill Drummond, and chief operating officer Anita Decker were summarily escorted from their offices and placed on leave. Decker and others appeared before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
- The Bonneville Power Administration was sued by the Idaho Conservation League in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2013. The suit says that subjecting Lake Pend Oreille to fluctuating water levels aimed at increasing downstream power generation will erode shorelines, hurt water quality and destroy valuable wetlands.
- Interestingly enough, the Owens Water Wars in California helped inspire the 1927 and 1928 water rights laws on Lake Pend Oreille, Priest Lake and Lake Coeur d’Alene, including Idaho state laws 67.4304 and 67.4305. These laws protect all Idahoans’ rights to enjoy the lake with fishing, recreation, navigation and scenic beauty.
The question remains, if J.J. Gittes were on the case today, would he call “Bull” on the bull trout?
What would he discover lurking behind this modern-day water grab?
And what can those who love Lake Pend Oreille do about it?