Idaho BHA has joined with a range of other conservation organizations on the Priest River Project.
The Priest River remains a relatively unknown fishery in North Idaho, compared to its more notorious counterparts. Based on the status of its current productivity, it is easy to see why. Almost 50 river miles long, this tributary of the Pend Oreille River is hampered by low stream flows, lethally high water temperatures, and sediment impairment. The EPA currently lists the lower Priest River (36 river miles) as impaired for cold water aquatic life. Most of these problems began as many river problems do, with the installation of a dam in 1950. Prior to the installation of this dam, native Cutthroat and Bull trout, Mountain Whitefish, and other cold water species migrated into Priest Lake when threatened with rising temperatures and low flows; these fish are now cut off from that cold water refuge. While removing the dam is not a possibility for this system, there may still be hope to revive this struggling fishery.
The key to improving the health of the river is to lower the temperature of the water, and the question revolves around the best way to make that happen. While IDFG is actively working on a range of potential solutions and engaging in community outreach, one solution being explored is to pipe cold water in from the bottom of Priest Lake - also known as a cold water bypass system. This system would cool the river during the hot summer months by as much as 18 degrees Fahrenheit at the pipe outflow, providing a major cold water input to the system. It sounds simple, but a full explanation of how the system works is available on the Priest River Project website. The cold water bypass concept is a tried and true system that has been implemented in nearby Sullivan Lake in Northeast Washington. While the outcome has yet to be determined, urther study and community engagement will be required to determine the best way forward.
The Priest River has potential. Serious potential. The river is bordered by USFS public lands and Idaho state lands through over half its length, so future fisheries work to continue restoration with willing partners has a high potential for success. This restoration will also generate economic benefits, and IDFG projects that a revived cold water fishery on the river could generate up to $3 million in recreation dollars.
This effort has the potential to go beyond traditional habitat restoration projects and may actually address the root of some of this river’s problems. By restoring cold water into this system we have a shot at restoring not just a fishery but an entire river ecosystem.
There are many organizations, including Idaho BHA, that have pledged their support to this project, many of whom are listed on the project’s website. If you are a member of an organization who may be willing to pledge support, please have them email [email protected] There is also a petition on the website for individuals to provide support.