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It’s Your Lake Too

| June 26, 2024 1:00 AM

Recent events on Whitefish Lake have put in focus the challenges that we face to protect our most iconic shared natural resource. The health of the lake is not to be taken for granted.   

The lake offers the community a variety of beneficial uses ranging from drinking water to recreation to a setting for dream homes. A joint study by The University of Montana Flathead Lake Biological Station and the Whitefish Lake Institute shows that Whitefish Lake enhanced surrounding property values up to $1.1 billion, contributing upwards of $8 million in property tax revenue annually.  

Conversely, studies show that there is a negative impact to property value when a lake loses clarity or quality. When that happens, we are at risk of losing some of the lake’s resource benefits. We can expect decreased visual aesthetics, a compromised aquatic food web, and potential beach closures to protect public health. 

The Whitefish Lake Institute is a non-regulatory science and education based non-profit organization working to give the lake a voice. However, it will take an effort from the entire community to listen, engage and become active stewards of our namesake. The following are just a few of the issues that we track, and so should you: 

Lakeshore Violations 

The recent lakeshore violation in Beaver Bay is the most egregious I’ve seen in my 20 years as director of the Whitefish Lake Institute. Blasted material has covered the entire hill slope, delivering boulders the size of Volkswagens and fine sediment to the lake.  

This lakeshore project started with a lakeshore violation for cutting down trees in the lakeshore protection zone. Lost now are deep-rooted, soil binding vegetation to buffer the shoreline from erosion. The fine sediment released from the blasting event is full of phosphorus needed by unwanted algae. The precipitated fine sediment is also blanketing the lake bottom causing localized death of aquatic life that live there.  

The issue gets muddier with the complex jurisdictional authority on Whitefish Lake involving multiple agencies. The Beaver Bay violation highlights systemic failures ranging from the contractor and blasting sub-contractor to jurisdictional oversight and response.  

Ultimately, each landowner and their contractor need to approach development in a thoughtful and cautious way. The contractor community should be leaders in the conservation of our resources and ensure that they know the regulations and implement best-management practices.   

After the first violation when trees were cut down in the lakeshore protection zone, the project applied for an after-the-fact permit and was subject to increased fines. However, the fine schedule set by the state of Montana is antiquated and needs more teeth. The project will now invariably receive additional fines for the material entering the lake. But the fines will not be commensurate with the impact on our shared resource.   

This summer I have tasked myself to solicit voluntary recommendations from all known lakeshore protection regulatory authorities and compile suggestions to amend the Montana Lakeshore Protection Act.  

Septic leachate   

We have multiple lines of evidence to demonstrate that aging septic systems are adding human pathogens and unwanted nutrients to the lake. Conclusive evidence comes from the 2012 Whitefish Lake Institute study that used multiple tools including finding human DNA biomarkers.  

A pilot study using synthetic DNA showed that all homes where tracers were flushed down volunteer participants toilets were later found in Whitefish Lake. That study was followed by pilot pharmaceutical and personal care product testing at two sites. Results showed dozens of chemical compounds in our lake. We have taken extraordinary measures to rule out that naturally derived compounds are at play.  

We can do more locally on the issue, starting with private landowners routinely pumping their septic tanks and maintaining their systems. Neighborhood communities need to look at connecting to centralized sewer service. Our previous work has not gone unnoticed and has promoted statewide discussion. The Western Montana Conservation Commission is tackling this issue and legislation is now routinely debated in Helena.  

Fireworks 

Based on a whitepaper developed by the Whitefish Lake Institute, the Whitefish City Council passed an ordinance in 2021 that calls for the phasing out of perchlorate-based fireworks to a 50% level. Perchlorates are used primarily in the propulsion of fireworks. Exposure to perchlorates is known to cause a myriad of human health issues. The problem is that they are highly soluble in water where they can persist for some time.    

The Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, who sponsors the fireworks display, along with their distributor, have tried to find non-perchlorate fireworks without success. Fireworks are an important Whitefish cultural tradition but the health of our children swimming at City Beach is more important to me. Don’t forget that Whitefish Lake is a municipal drinking water source. Over this 4th of July season, the Whitefish Lake Institute is participating in a nationwide perchlorate study to further describe the issue. 

If we can’t find non-perchlorate fireworks, it may be time for our community to start a discussion about a new home for our Independence Day celebration.   

Wake Boats 

All boats can impact water quality, especially if the owner does not adhere to the 200 foot no-wake zone extending out from the shoreline. Wake boats pose a dual threat to water quality. The high energy waves purposely produced for surfing behind the boat exert incredible energy as they crash on the shoreline. This creates shoreline erosion and delivers fine sediment to the lake. The result is decreased water clarity and the delivery of nutrients that drive unwanted algal production.  

Additionally, ballast tanks in wake boats can never be fully drained. They are a high-risk vector to harbor and introduce the microscopic life form of zebra mussels. The Whitefish Aquatic Invasive Species Program (a partnership between WLI and the City of Whitefish) treats these boats as high risk if they come from outside of our area, and they undergo preventative decontamination prior to launch.  

Boat owners need to do their part and respect the 200 foot no wake zone. Wake boats captains, please operate near the middle of the lake to reduce wave impact. 

The Whitefish Lake Institute developed “Love the Lake, Stop the Wake” buoy stickers and deployed buoys at strategic locations around the lake. We also offer these stickers to any individual that has a buoy. And remember to Clean, Drain, and Dry your watercraft after use to stop the spread of aquatic invasive species.   

Rail Transport 

On July 31,1989 a train derailment occurred where two diesel fuel tanker cars fell down an embankment into Mackinaw Bay. An estimated 20,000-25,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into Whitefish Lake. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality spearheaded the clean-up at the time. 

On the twenty-year anniversary of the spill, the Whitefish Lake Institute conducted follow up testing in the sediment near the shoreline where high levels of extractable petroleum hydrocarbons were found to have persisted. Upon prompting, the Environmental Protection Agency required BNSF to clean up an additional 900 cubic meters of contaminated soil.  

Heavy rail traffic continues along Whitefish Lake and other pristine waters in western Montana. I’ll be advocating that the Western Montana Conservation Commission inventory all public and private hazardous response mitigation supplies and coordinate their access and usability by major parties. 

Personal and Community Stewardship 

The Whitefish community has a rich water stewardship ethos. The original lakeshore protection act, the phosphate ban, and the formation of the Flathead Basin Commission (now Western Montana Conservation Commission) were largely spearheaded by Whitefish leaders like Bob Brown and Charlie Abell. Others like Jim Stack excelled at chairing the Whitefish Lakeshore Protection Committee for over a quarter century.  

We cannot fall complacent and let the lake die of a thousand cuts. Whether it be things like lakeshore violations, septic leachate pollution, or the recent vandalism on a property near City Beach where items like lawn furniture, paint cans and other debris were thrown into the lake.   

We as a community can institute a multitude of actions and best management practices to benefit the lake’s health, and we can lead by example for the next generation of water stewards. Recent events and on-going issues should cause us to pause and reflect inward to chart our direction. Henry David Thoreau said it best. “A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” 

Mike Koopal is the founder and executive director of the Whitefish Lake Institute