Archive for May, 2011

Tundra swans are dying again this year. Like they do every year.

Lured to the beautiful lower Coeur d’Alene basin’s waterways and wetlands for rest and food, the birds end up, quite literally, choked on sediments contaminated with lead. The lead, of course, is flushed downstream by flooding from the legacy of mining in the Silver Valley. Each spring runoff season brings a fresh coating of contamination. Each spring migration season brings 150 or more swan carcasses.

According to Idaho Fish and Game, this year’s late spring is causing the swans to stay over longer in the basin, which will likely lead to more mortality.  Lead poisoning is particularly hard on tundra swans because it shuts down their digestive systems, causing them to starve. Some 80% of the lower Coeur d’Alene wetlands are contaminated enough to be lethal to swans. More than 92% of swan deaths in the basin are due to contamination.

Recent data presented to a committee of the Basin Environmental Improvement Project Commission, the agency responsible for monitoring and guiding cleanup efforts, showed that, indeed, January flooding caused widespread contamination.

Typical runoff from the Upper Coeur d’Alene mining districts will deposit sediments with 2000 or 3000 parts per million of lead contamination downstream. In the high water flows from this past January, sediment deposits were more like 5000 parts per million. As the scientists explained, larger flows are moving more particles and bigger particles and thus spreading more contamination.

The most disturbing thing, however, is that the level of contamination that triggers cleanup action in the Basin is 530 parts per million. In other words, in every year, in every flood season, the lower Coeur d’Alene basin is contaminated beyond levels that are safe.

Regulators continue to consider final approval for the cleanup plan for the upper Coeur d’Alene basin, but it might still be years before there’s even a preliminary plan for the lower Coeur d’Alene. Unfortunately, it looks to be another couple of decades before this mess gets cleaned up and birds will be safe.


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Even before the marathon meeting gathered momentum, the Coeur d’Alene City Council agreed unanimously to separate Tubbs Hill from the concept plan for McEuen Park. On a motion by Ron Edinger, seconded and amended by Mike Kennedy, the Council agreed with KEA and the Tubbs Hill Foundation that Tubbs Hill needs to be addressed, but needs to be addressed differently, and in a different process.

The Council’s action recognized that there was a consensus that accessibility concerns needed to be addressed on Tubbs Hill. With Kennedy’s amendment, the issues relating to Tubbs Hill were remanded back to the Parks Department to draft a specific comprehensive management plan to address trail accessibility, public safety, connectivity, forest health, invasive species, and ongoing maintenance. The Department was directed to collaborate with stakeholders including the Tubbs Hill Foundation and the disability community. Kennedy’s amendment also will require a specific report back to the Council with dates and schedules for implementation.

After similar amendments by Edinger to save the boat ramp and baseball field failed, the Council opened the meeting to public comment. Eliminating the Tubbs controversy saved a minimum of six minutes of the marathon four-and-a-half-hour meeting as the Tubbs Hill Foundation and KEA no longer felt a need to testify. At the close of public comment, the Council voted 5-1 to approve the rest of the McEuen proposal.

We think this is precisely the right approach for Tubbs Hill. With the plethora of McEuen Park issues now a separate municipal headache, we can look forward to working with the Parks Department and the other stakeholders to come up with a great plan for the great Tubbs Hill.

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We’ve written a few times about Tubbs Hill and its intersection with the McEuen Park debate. As the concept proposal for McEuen goes to the City Council next week, the issue of Tubbs Hill is likely to be squarely at the forefront of the Council’s consideration.

We’ve spent some time this past week, working with community members, talking to City Council members, and thinking a lot about Tubbs Hill. And we think we’ve discovered a clear, across-the-board, consensus as to what needs to happen. The problem, at this point, is how to make it happen. We’re increasingly of the opinion that considering Tubbs Hill in the McEuen Park context is the wrong approach. Tubbs Hill is different.

Tubbs Hill is no wilderness, but the community’s desire to keep it as natural as possible is remarkably strong. Moreover, the community’s connection to it and sense of pride and ownership in it are strong. While the concept proposal for McEuen Park is an arguably justified exercise in placemaking for Coeur d’Alene, Tubbs Hill is already a place.

Nevertheless, the clear consensus is that Tubbs Hill does need some thoughtful attention. As highlighted in the McEuen discussions, the trail network needs to address a distinct lack of accessibility. But there are other concerns as well – public safety, invasive species, the health of the forest, and how to manage (and finance the management of) the resource that is both wildly popular and naturally beautiful.

But these are issues that are substantially different and essentially independent from the drivers of McEuen Park design. These are issues that can be resolved more quickly, and more comprehensively, if set aside to a separate, collaborative process, that is not tied to the many McEuen projects. Indeed, we’re afraid the unique nature of Tubbs Hill’s problems and solutions will be lost in the noise surrounding the more difficult and expensive projects under the McEuen umbrella.

Everyone with the City of Coeur d’Alene or Team McEuen we’ve contacted agrees that nothing will move forward on Tubbs Hill without a lot of consultation and collaboration, but nobody was able to tell us specifically how that would work in the McEuen Park context. So why not just make it clear? Why not separate Tubbs Hill from the McEuen project, set up a collaborative process, and just get started?

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We got an email a couple of weeks ago from a resident in Post Falls concerned about a pair of suddenly homeless and increasingly desperate osprey. As the all-purpose conservation organization in North Idaho, and friend to animals big and small, could we help?

We set out on twitter (and the telephone), and according to an Avista representative, it seems this particular migrating osprey pair had come into their homelessness through some unfortunate housing choices. The pair had originally settled, like many osprey in our area, on a long-abandoned piling in the Spokane River.  However, almost all of the river pilings were removed this past year.

Forced to find a new home near the water, the pair of osprey chose the top of an Avista power pole along Spokane Street. Here’s what our correspondent said about the sad scene:

Last Thursday, unfortunately, the pole caught fire because of the nest filling with water then arcing across the wires.  The top of the pole broke off sending the nest to the ground.  Luckily, the pair had just returned so there were no eggs in the nest.  The pair also survived.  Avista fixed the pole but has not placed a new platform on the pole.  The osprey pair are still here.  She sits on the pole and he circles above. 

Avista confirmed to us that the pole had a nest box, but the osprey’s poor housekeeping habits turned the nest into a fire hazard – causing a fire on the pole. Twice.  In fact, the second fire caused a brief power outage for much of Post Falls. This sort of osprey-related pole fire is not unheard of, but nevertheless, Avista decided that this particular pair could no longer nest on this particular pole.

Still, the nice people at Avista, who do this sort of thing all the time, were perfectly agreeable to replacing the nest on a nearby tree, but they had difficulty gaining approval from a troublesome landowner. Avista also thought another tree, on property owned by the Post Falls Highway District might work, but it had similar access problems.

Well, today we’re pleased that our correspondent has confirmed that a brand new nest is in the Highway District’s tree, and the osprey have taken up residence already:

Good news!

Avista was out on Friday and put a platform on the tree that sits in the Post Falls Highway District’s jurisdiction.  I’m not sure how they accessed it but it’s done and our osprey have already made their home there.  They had been flying around for the last 4 weeks very unhappy about not having a nest in the same area as the previous one.  I don’t know if it is too late now for them to lay eggs and raise chicks but at least they will have a place to return to next year.

So thanks to Avista and our sharp-eyed correspondent, all is well.

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Today, KEA filed comments on the draft Forest Planning Rule, proposed by the U.S. Forest Service to govern how forest plans are drafted and, ultimately, how forests are managed into the future. The current rule has been in effect since 1982, and since then, all subsequent efforts to revise the rule have failed.

Our comments are less extensive and less technical, but they track the comments of other national conservation organizations, emphasizing the need to restore and protect watersheds and wildlife habitat, and the need to preserve roadless areas and the last remaining tracts of land with wilderness potential. Timber production and higher-impact recreational activities need to be regulated and zoned to suitable locations, and they must no longer be allowed to damage the resources.

Meanwhile, a new forest plan for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests is expected to be released this summer under the old planning rule.

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Finally, there’s some sunshine and warmth in the air. For our Community Roots program, that’s the signal for a very busy spring season. Even though it’ll take a while before delicious fresh food gets harvested out of our CSA farm and the Shared Harvest Garden, there’s plenty of activity in preparation.

This week, our own Roots CSA will be out at the Kootenai County Farmers Market this Saturday in Hayden. Come out to purchase some early-season seedlings and meet our new CSA team, Sue Selle and Kara Carelton. Proceeds go back into our Community Roots efforts.

Also, you’ll want to mark your calendars for the annual yard sale fundraiser for the Roots program. It’ll be held out at the CSA in Dalton Gardens on June 11th for all of your yard sale purchases this spring. However, between now and then if you’re doing your spring cleaning and you come across stuff you’d like to unload contribute to the sale, contact Korrine at rootscsa [at] kealliance.org to make a donation and arrange for a pickup.

Purely for the fun of it, our Roots program is working with Coeur d’Alene’s Bike-to-work Week to sponsor the 2nd annual Roots Pursuit bicycle challenge, Saturday May 21. This amazingly fun friends & family event pits teams of two or three riders against each other in bike and brain challenges around town. Pick up a registration form on our website, or at Java on Sherman. Even if you’re not part of a team, come down and watch the fun at one of the challenges from 10:00-12:00 at Tubbs Hill, City Park, or Phippeny Park. Check out all the other Bike-to-work week events too.

Finally, Korrine and the Community Roots team will be presenting all the big plans at the regularly scheduled Lunch and Learn at the Iron Horse at noon on the 19th.

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We got word on Thursday that the Washington Department of Ecology was releasing a new study, purporting to prove the feasibility of a scheme to recharge the critical Rathdrum Prairie aquifer with water from Lake Pend Oreille. The aquifer is the sole source of drinking water for about 600,000 people.

The report, called the “Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer* Optimized Recharge for Summer Flow Augmentation of the Columbia River,” was prepared for the Washington Department of Ecology by the state of Washington Water Research Center at Washington State University. According to the Ecology press release announcing the report, the study was part of an effort

“to ensure adequate water supplies in the SVRP aquifer and in the Spokane River in the face of population growth, ever-increasing groundwater pumping and expected effects of climate change.  Large amounts of aquifer pumping have already decreased summer low flows in the Spokane River.”

The report suggests that it is feasible to pump water from Lake Pend Oreille, send it through a pipeline to a location near Garwood, and inject the water back into the aquifer. The report estimates it would cost $90 million to construct the system and $12 – 14 million each year thereafter to operate it.

Ecology notes that having the technical feasibility study done does not mean this project would move forward. The press release quotes the Ecology staffer John Covert: “Knowing that it could be done doesn’t mean that it should or will be done. This report simply gives us the technical information so that we can start a regional conversation about how to make up for the effects of groundwater withdrawals on the Spokane River during the critical, summer low-flow months.”

We absolutely understand that the Spokane River in Washington has a very serious problem with low flows in summertime. The low flows threaten habitat and recreation and they are a compounding problem for the difficult pollution problems in the river.

We suppose we should thank the State of Washington for their concern and their out-of-the-box thinking.  But we’re still extremely skeptical of this very expensive solution using Idaho’s water resources.

In fact, because Washington has so conveniently studied the Idaho-based solution to the Spokane River problem, maybe it’s time that Idaho studies a Washington-based solution. Perhaps the Idaho Water Resources Board (IWRB) could perform a study of Washington’s approaches to conserving the resource on their side of the border. For example, an Idaho report on the failings of Spokane’s water allocations and conservation efforts might result in an alternate approach to pumping Lake Pend Oreille for all eternity.

Indeed, the IWRB is holding a hearing this week on a draft of a Comprehensive Aquifer Management Plan for the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer. Maybe we’ll suggest it in our comments.

*Did you notice that Washington has its own name for the aquifer on its side of the state line? Renaming Lake Pend Oreille was NOT addressed in the study. 

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A fellow Kootenai County resident who toils in the planning and zoning trenches, called in response to our recent blog posting about Euclidean zoning and performance zoning. He suggested a great analogy to help explain the complicated zoning typology without forcing the poor reader to click off into Wikipedia or something to figure out what we’re talking about.

He suggested that Euclidean, use-based zoning, is a lot like a box of chocolates. Each different chocolate in a precise position in the box according to the map on the box lid. Some are super-delicious, some aren’t as good, but they are all similarly chocolates.

Performance-based, or form-based codes, he said, are more like a bouquet of flowers. Flowers of different colors, different lengths and varieties, along with some greenery and ribbons and other stuff that isn’t strictly flowers but help make the whole bouquet look nice.

We think that helps. Happy Mothers Day!

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The Kootenai County Commissioners got an up-close look at the current condition of the County zoning code last Thursday night. Faced with a long-running and messy decision over a “party barn” in a rural zone at the Washington state line, the Commissioners found themselves stuck in a procedural morass that was only made possible by the currently antiquated approach to zoning, and which would have been so much simpler under a more modern code.

Although the strictly environmental impacts of a “party barn” facility are probably minimal, the impacts on a rural community could be significant. For example, traffic, noise, hours of operation, and the availability of public safety and other services are concerns that any neighborhood might have. Yet, the county code isn’t designed around impacts, it is designed around “uses.” And this is where the party barn — and the County — got into trouble.  What exactly IS a party barn? How do you classify it under the county’s 1970s vintage zoning code.

The county’s old-school Euclidian zoning scheme is based on a general rule that commercial uses go in commercial zones, industrial uses in industrial zones, and residential uses in residential zones. Exceptions to the general rule are allowed only if they fit a set of specifically enumerated “conditional uses” within a particular zone.

The party barn applied for a conditional use called a “commercial resort” which would be allowed in the rural residential zone where it was located.  Over the objections of neighbors, the county planning staff and the previous Board of County Commissioners approved the classification and approved the conditional use permit. The problem, though, is that in Kootenai County, a “commercial resort” is defined as:

“a privately owned, outdoor recreation area, operated for profit. A commercial resort may include permanent facilities for overnight and seasonal living, camping areas, recreational vehicle parks, and for limited commercial activities associated with convenience goods and services that serve to enhance the primary recreational use or facility.”

When the neighbors appealed the prior Board’s decision to a court, the judge issued an overly-lengthy opinion that pointed out the simple and obvious problem:

The problem with [the county’s] determination is patently obvious. [The county] finds the proposed use of applicant’s barn located on applicant’s land for a wedding facility inside that barn to be a “commercial resort.” But a “commercial resort is defined only as an outdoor recreation area,” and none of the examples of an “outdoor recreation facility” are indoor activities.

The judge takes 20 pages to explain, but on page 14 he says in his own bold and underline type, “Indoors is different from outdoors” and  “A wedding is different than a convenience food store.

So, on Thursday night, the County Commissioners wrestled with the implications of the Judge’s decision. If it’s not a commercial resort, what is it? And once it is decided what it is, is it allowed in the rural zone in the quiet valley near the state line? Ultimately, the Commissioners couldn’t find an appropriate “conditional uses” and had to revert to the general rule, it’s a plain vanilla commercial use, and therefore it belongs in a commercial zone not a rural one.

Although this is almost certainly the right substantive result in this case, nobody can be really happy with how it was achieved.  The general Euclidian rule is so obviously problematic: Rural areas can handle commercial activity if it is appropriate for the rural lifestyle.  But using Euclidian zoning to define every single use that will or will not be allowed is doomed to failure in this modern age of new and mixed uses.

More modern form-based or performance-based zoning is more flexible and more appropriate.  For example, if parking and traffic and noise are the real practical issues, then the zoning code should regulate parking and traffic and noise.  The standards need to be thoughtful and they need to be rigorous in protecting rural (and environmental) values. But, if the property looks rural, feels rural, and doesn’t impact rural neighbors, then it simply shouldn’t matter what the use is.

A party barn shouldn’t be allowed in a rural area because loud amplified music and a hundred cars at a time isn’t compatible with rural neighbors. Not just because it is a commercial venture that is primarily indoors.

UPDATE 5/18: Here’s a Spokesman Review article on the dispute.

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