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"It's not the full picture": Where Idaho fits in an alarming report on the nation's water quality

A birds-eye view of Lake Pend Oreille
A birds-eye view of Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille

According to a new report from the advocacy organization Environmental Integrity Project, more than half of natural water across the United States is below standard for either drinking, recreating or habitation by aquatic life.

The analysis is based on individual states' water quality reports; most from between 2018and 2020, though Arizona's report dated to 2016.

In Idaho, the report shows more than half the state’s rivers and two-thirds of lakes as impaired. That can mean elevated pollution or bacteria levels, or low oxygen. It can also be because the water temperature is too warm to effectively support aquatic life.

"It's not the full picture," said Jason Pappani, surface water bureau chief with Idaho’s Department of Environmental Quality. "It's looking at the waters that where we have monitored and where we have conducted assessments and produce assessments for as part of our integrated report."

Pappani said DEQ pays more attention to areas of concern than waterways not showing signs of degradation. But he admits that many samples are focused on the health of organisms living in those bodies of water - specifically streams - and DEQ isn't necessarily sampling for other chemicals or temperature.

"A large percentage of the water bodies that we've identified as impaired are for temperature or other common pollutants are sediment and nutrients. But but temperature is by far, I think, our largest contributor to impairment," Pappani said.

Temperature specifically is what is driving many areas of impairment listed in the report.

"Oregon has more than 112,000 miles of rivers and streams that are impaired; not meeting water quality standards," Environmental Integrity Project Executive Director Eric Schaeffer told reporters in a call on March 23. "Ninety-thousand of those river industry miles are impaired because they are overheated; they've gotten too warm to support aquatic and fish life, and [there are] a variety of reasons for that, but climate change is obviously a major factor."

Schaeffer, a former director of civil enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency, says more effective enforcement of Clean Water Act standards is needed.

"The failure to confront agriculture, that is probably the biggest program failure in the Clean Water Act," Schaeffer said.

Pappani agrees there is work to be done in protecting water but prefers a different sampling methodology he likens to political polling.

"You sample certain lakes or streams, and each of those represents a larger component of the population," he said. "When we've done that in Idaho for rivers and streams over the years, we generally find that about 70% of our stream miles are are in good or fair conditions."

He mentioned a similar percentage for the number of lakes in Idaho DEQ considers to be healthy.

Idaho counts each body as one, regardless of its size. Environmental Integrity's report measured lake acreage, with any area of impairment making all lake acreage count as impaired. Lakes
Pend Oreille and Coeur D'Alene, for example, accounted for about half the impaired lake acreage in all of Idaho.

"There are areas of those lakes where you could find chemicals or find impairments. But large portions of those lakes are also in very good shape and healthy for people to swim and recreation," Pappani said.

Environmental Integrity uses the report to highlight the shortcomings of the Federal Clean Water Act, which turns 50 this year.

"We're supposed to set and enforce targets for cleaning [waterways] up," Schaeffer said. "So based on the latest round of those state reviews, you can see how much work remains in front of us."

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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