Priest water study to be wide, deep

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  • —Photo courtesy AS THE LAKE CHURNS/SARA K. WILLIAMS This aerial image shows sedimentation at the breakwater at the north end of Priest Lake.

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    —Photo courtesy ALLISON HAGMAN Sunset over Priest Lake’s Cavanaugh Bay.

  • —Photo courtesy AS THE LAKE CHURNS/SARA K. WILLIAMS This aerial image shows sedimentation at the breakwater at the north end of Priest Lake.

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    —Photo courtesy ALLISON HAGMAN Sunset over Priest Lake’s Cavanaugh Bay.

SANDPOINT — A comprehensive study is getting underway to determine how to maintain a dependable summer pool level in Priest Lake without sacrificing downstream flows in the Priest River.

A request for proposals from consultants for the $300,000 study is set to be issued this month. A consultant is expected to be selected by September, according to the Idaho Department of Water Resources, which is funding the study.

There are a half dozen elements of the study including a hydrological analysis, ways to improve water supply forecasting and evaluation of the potential to store water to maintain the lake level through the summer recreation season. The study will also identify potential impacts to landowners, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat.

There will also be an engineering analyses of potential improvements to the Outlet Bay Dam and the deteriorating breakwater at the north end of the lake.

“We know we’re going to have a good study,” Idaho Water Resource Board Chairman Roger Chase said after the panel took in a detailed briefing on Thursday in Sandpoint.

Northern Idaho lawmakers urged the department to take on the study after drought conditions last year made it difficult maintain required summer levels and downstream flows. Moreover, the breakwater structure badly needs rehabilitation and sedimentation in the Thorfare — the 3-mile channel connecting Priest Lake with Upper Priest Lake — is becoming impassible for motorboats due to sedimentation.

Bonner County Commissioner Todd Sudick said the question of how to address those problems may ultimately be easy to answer.

“It’s how to fund it and how to ensure that the access to Upper Priest is maintained by boaters because the only other way in is to hike in,” Sudick said, referring to the tougher questions.

Steve Klatt, director of Bonner County Parks & Waterways, expects a wide range of breakwater options and Thorofare tweaks will be considered during the study.

“You run many models through a computer before you see the ones that start to rise like cream in milk,” he said.

The study will also have a public involvement component because changes to lake levels by merely an inch can provoke hostility around the lake.

Erin Mader, coordinator for the Idaho Lakes Commission, said holding the lake up 3 inches higher can cause beaches to shrink.

“At 6 inches raised, they may not have any beach in the summertime, which I think people would be pretty concerned about,” Mader said.

Dale Van Stone, the water board’s Panhandle representative, said there could be opposition to any change — up or down — to the summer pool.

“Status quo may be the one (option) more people would agree on because that’s what they’re comfortable with,” he said.

Coordination with the consultant, stakeholders and the study team is anticipated to stretch into the spring of 2017. Public involvement in the study is schedule to start next summer.

“Funding is going to be the challenge,” said Chase. “This isn’t like a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar project. It’s going to cost some money.”

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