Fish = Power
Threatened fish used as pawn in power game

By Erika Bentsen

An online petition is circulating in a grassroots effort to halt a rampant federal government takeover of Idaho’s state water rights. Lake Pend Oreille Alliance, the petition sponsor, fears this federal government action will spread across the state if left unchecked. Signatures must be in prior to September 24.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), as a part of the Federal Columbia River Power System (a federal government consortium that includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) and the Bureau of Reclamation), recently entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Kalispel Tribe. In a nutshell, BPA will pay the 400-member tribe nearly $40 million to adjust the Pend Oreille River’s riparian areas and plant bull trout, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The fish will be released downstream from the Albeni Falls Dam, the powerhouse on the lake’s outlet. Because this threatened species needs cooler water than the river provides throughout the summer months, BPA will then be “forced” to release more water through its cash cow dam systems in order to protect this fish they paid the tribe to bring in.

One detail this federal consortium conveniently overlooked: this lake water legally belongs to the State of Idaho.

For several years, the BPA and the COE have been lowering water levels of Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho panhandle more than state laws allow. By running lake water through the powerhouse at the Albeni Falls Dam into the Pend Oreille River and subsequently through 10 more hydroelectric dams on the main channel of the Columbia River, BPA can generate millions of dollars’ worth of power supplying the Northwest. By quietly sealing the deal with the Kalispel Tribe, BPA has now enabled itself to take a lot more lake water that they haven’t been able to touch. As a result, BPA stands to make a fortune and, through the ESA, take the water from state control and turn it over to the feds. Area landowners and businesses that rely on Lake Pend Oreille for their livelihood are furious that they weren’t consulted in what is amounting to a theft of their state-allocated water and a decimation of the 148-square-mile lake with destructive 4.5-foot summer drawdowns.

Lake Pend Oreille is a natural reservoir, but after massive floods swept through the river valleys of the Columbia basin in 1948, Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River was authorized under the Flood Control Act of 1950. This helped to regulate annual floods into manageable flows. Construction by the COE was completed in 1955. It was designed to store water for downstream power production and irrigation at other dams along the Pend Oreille and Columbia Rivers and to release water for upstream flood control. Managed by the COE, the 90-foot high, 775-foot wide dam currently produces 200 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year for BPA.

Under the Title 1 Rivers & Harbors Flood Control Act of 1950, the Albeni Falls Dam was authorized to be multipurpose in concordance with Idaho’s 1928 water rights. This law stated: “all of the unappropriated water of Priest, Pend Oreille, and Coeur d’Alene Lakes in their present condition for scenic beauty, health, recreation, transportation, and commercial purposes necessary for and desirable for all inhabitants of the state to be a beneficial use of such water.”

In 1927, the state of Idaho had passed 67.4305, which declared that Priest, Pend Oreille, and Coeur d’Alene Lakes “as a health resort and recreational place for the inhabitants of the state is hereby declared to be MORE NECESSARY than the use of said lands as a storage reservoir for irrigation or power purposes.” In 1928, a dam permit was issued for Albeni Falls.

In acknowledgement of the State of Idaho’s water rights, the COE, which still manages the Albeni Falls Dam for BPA, agreed to keep a “full pool” summer lake level of 2,062.5 feet, maintained for six months, by balancing lake inflows with dam output. This was established in order to maximize the co-equal benefits of recreation, scenic beauty, wetlands habitat, fish and wildlife conservation, and (lastly) power generation. The lake water was for the people of Idaho and visitors to enjoy. Somewhere down the line, however, COE and BPA began focusing more on money generated by electricity at the expense of the other defined purposes. These days, full pool lasts less than two and a half months.

Unfortunately for private property owners, towns, and businesses that have relied on the full lake for their livelihood, this added impact from the threatened bull trout project could devastate the entire region’s economy. By lowering Lake Pend Oreille levels a staggering 4.5 feet in the summer, hundreds of feet of shoreline will be exposed, lowering property values and vastly reducing recreational opportunities. Additionally, lake water quality will be affected through erosion and by increasing algae blooms with the introduction of excess nutrients, which in turn will harm lake fish and waterfowl.

BPA is already being sued by environmentalists for lake level tampering and the destruction of lake wetlands. A lawsuit filed by the Idaho Conservation League claims that, in 2011, after 20 years of keeping the lake levels stable, BPA started varying water levels on Lake Pend Oreille. BPA admitted that variances of six inches per day in the winter generates millions of dollars in downstream electrical output through the multiple dams on the Columbia River. The lawsuit claimed BPA violated federal law by not providing a thorough environmental review on shoreline erosion and its detrimental affect on the habitat and water quality of the lake.

The petition to save Lake Pend Oreille water levels, and the State of Idaho’s water rights, can be found at

Lake Pend Oreille Alliance has started an online petition in an effort to stop a federal takeover of state water rights through a non-mandatory rewording of the U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty. The Columbia River Basin system and drainages can be found in seven states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Nevada, and Utah. The river originates in Canada and flows through British Columbia and Alberta.


Year 2024 marks the first time the 1964 Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada can either be modified, reinstated as is, or terminated altogether. A requirement of a 10-year notice before any proposed changes could go into effect puts this year as a milestone for altering the treaty. If left unchanged, the treaty is scheduled to continue indefinitely, essentially as it was originally intended. The treaty had two goals of equal importance: much needed flood control, and reliable power for the two countries. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) manage the United States’ dams and power infrastructure. British Columbia Hydro and Power Authority (BC Hydro) takes care of the Canadian network.

According to its website, BPA is a federal non-profit power marketing administration in the Northwest. Although it is part of the Department of Energy, it is self-funding and covers its costs by selling its products and services. It is currently selling roughly $2 billion worth of power, supplying 30% of the electricity needs in the Northwest.

Ultimate River-Boss…
BPA has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State, co-signed by COE, with a wish list of changes it would like to see made to the 2024 treaty. If BPA gets its way, states will have less say in the management of rivers and streams within their boundaries, and BPA, serving as the treaty administrator, would subsequently call the shots. BPA is recommending that the treaty be drastically altered to “achieve a modernized framework for the Treaty that balances power production, flood risk management, and ecosystem-based function as the primary purposes addressed in the Treaty.” This will give their fish and riparian ecosystem pet-projects equal (if not greater) importance as flood control and power supply. (See last week’s Lake Pend Oreille story on page one for one of the reasons behind this self-funding government organization’s desire for states’ water.)

Changing the treaty will neatly take the control of states over their own water and transfer it to a federally-manipulated system. Individual states, who are directly affected by local economic and environmental health, arguably have a deeper understanding of regional issues and impacts. This BPA recommended treaty change will essentially transfer a multitude of rivers, streams, and drainages linked hydraulically below ground surface into federally protected areas; these connections are currently being redefined in Oregon. In these areas, the trend follows that business economies, agriculture, fishing and recreational opportunities, and many varied livelihoods of diverse citizens are soon discounted, discontinued and dried up. (Note: For a better perspective of who cares more about solutions to local problems, who personally understands the issues at hand, who can perform a quicker response to dynamic situations, and who is actually concerned about how the results are impacting the region, ask this question: Would you rather call a national customer service center or a local business?)

Ultimately, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments are in charge of any treaty modifications. For the U.S., the Department of State, the President, and the U.S. Senate decide what’s best for our government interests. In Canada, it is the executive branch of the federal government. BPA claims, in its recommendation letter, to have made every effort possible to “achieve the broadest regional consensus.” However, with the uniqueness of independent states, a broad consensus doesn’t necessarily lend itself to separate, site-specific needs.

The State of Idaho does NOT support changing the treaty. Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter stated recently: “The original treaty with our northern neighbors was signed 50 years ago to ensure equitable sharing of the benefits of the hydropower system and flood control. Those key provisions should remain the treaty’s only functions. Talk of using the treaty to protect environmental functions on rivers in the Columbia River Basin is misguided and should be left to individual jurisdictions.” (See “Water in the West” below for Otter’s entire letter.)

(History Note: The genius behind the original structuring of the U.S. was that strong, successful states made a stronger union. As seen in other democracies throughout history, internal erosion will eventually break the backbone of the union if left unimpeded. This happens when insatiable demands of the main government continually grow stronger, regardless of the risk of weakening the state and weakening the individual.)

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