Nestled deep in North Idaho is the Priest River. This remote river begins at Priest Lake near the Canadian border and is one of the state’s many recreational destinations. The Priest River offers outstanding rafting and fishing opportunities, including some great fly fishing. The 66-mile river is home to many species of trout, including the native Westslope Cutthroat and the endangered Bull Trout. While the Priest is still remote and wild, a dam at its head has had a negative impact on water quality and river habitat for decades. Fly fishing guide Hank Jones of Inland Northwest Fishing Guides put out a call to bring a restoration project to our attention.
In 1950, a dam was built on Priest Lake near the confluence of the river. Now, the Priest River is fed by warm lake water, which is affecting its habitat and native trout species. In the summer months, the Priest River is too warm for its native species to thrive. In 2016, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality confirmed that the Priest River, below the dam to its confluence with the Pend Oreille River, is temperature impaired.
The solution to restore the temperatures of the Prift River has been known for years. The Kalispel Tribe and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game found that they needed to lower water temperatures during the warmer months of July, August and September, and the easiest solution would be to “reduce the surface runoff and replace some of it with cold water from the bottom. of the lake or other sources”. This is known as a cold water bypass project and has the potential to significantly lower the summer water temperature at the Priest by pumping water from deep in the lake, across the dam and into the river.
However, this project, which seems simple and uncontroversial, has met with resistance from landowners along the lake who claim that the project would lower lake levels and affect their properties. According to Idaho’s Fish and Wildlife, that wouldn’t happen.
Last year’s drought and heat waves affected the Priest River. “During the 2021 summer heat wave, Priest River water temperatures exceeded lethal levels for most coldwater fish species for an extended period of time; during the hottest days, water temperatures in parts of the river exceeded 80 degrees! With limited access to the nearby cold water refuge, the end result was a fish kill in parts of the river,” according to an IDFG story.
“The Lower Priest River struggles with increasingly warm temperatures and low flows most of the summer making it very difficult for bull trout to navigate the river to cooler spawning grounds,” said Erin Plue, Project Manager of Trout Unlimited Coeur d’Alene. “This river has faced many challenges and received very little attention. Trout Unlimited and many other stakeholders believe it is time to find real, long-term solutions for the Priest River.”
A petition is now gathering signatures to convince Idaho to continue pursuing the project and restore the Priest River’s native fish species. Also, be sure to check out the Priest River Project site.
Photos by Hank Jones and IDFG
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