IRU heads north for Coeur d'Alene river cleanup projects

The North Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River runs clean and cold and boasts an incredible fishery. Just a basin to the south, the Coeur d'Alene's South Fork is severely polluted. Photo by Ava Isaacson

The Coeur d’Alene River system in North Idaho is a study in contrasts.

Impacted for decades by mining waste, the basin’s South Fork is one of the most polluted rivers in the state, and arguably the country. The North Fork, conversely, boasts healthy fisheries and crystal-clear water. They’re two of the most notable rivers in Idaho, one for its immense contamination, the other for its clean water, wild setting and myriad of recreational benefits. 

IRU’s conservation associate, Ava Isaacson, recently traveled to North Idaho to learn more about the Coeur d’Alene basin and investigate ways IRU can further get involved in cleanup work there. She participated in a tour of the Superfund project on the South Fork and spent another day helping pick up litter on the North Fork.

The South Fork

Just over the Coeur d’Alene mountains from the resort community of Coeur d’Alene, lies the Silver Valley, one of the biggest Superfund sites in the country. A Superfund is an Environmental Protection Agency program that seeks to clean up significant environmentally hazardous sites. 

The Silver Valley was home to some of the planet’s largest silver mines and produced some 37,000 tons of silver. The small community of Wallace at the east end of the valley was dubbed the “Silver Capital of the World.”

Mining, however, comes with costs. Generations of families in the Silver Valley have suffered the direct impacts of heavy metal pollution in the soil, air and water.

Silver was processed in Smelterville, downstream of the massive Kellogg mine. Before being shut down, the smelter’s air filtration system failed and pumped contaminated particulates into Silver Valley skies for three years. The South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River ran brown, plants and trees died, and people’s bodies were inundated with heavy metals. The sun hardly shone through the valley’s toxic inversion. 

The legacy of careless mining in the Silver Valley is still visible today as the EPA and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality work to reclaim and restore the valley’s land and water. With massive successes in tree regrowth, tailings management and upper-basin restoration, work on the South Fork of the Coeur d’ Alene River itself is beginning. 

The lower Coeur d’ Alene River is a complicated hydrological system with deep depositional riverbeds, sandy river banks, wetlands, marshes and a series of unique chain lakes, all fed by the contaminated water from the South Fork. According to the EPA, toxins contaminate some 18,000 acres of wetlands along the river. All of that must be cleaned up.

Reclaiming and restoring the river is already proving more arduous than digging out contaminated sediments and soils or planting trees. Even with some $500 million allocated for reclamation and restoration, the EPA says, it’ll need more to complete the job. 

The North Fork

When you see the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River’s crystal clear water and pastel cobbles it’s difficult to fathom the extent of the pollution just a river valley away. The North Fork boasts world-class fly fishing, family-friendly flat-water paddling and intermediate level canoeing. It’s a destination for thousands of anglers, paddlers, campers and more, but not all who visit the area take good care of it.

On Aug. 19, Isaacson joined a river cleanup hosted by Respect the River and the U.S. Forest Service and helped haul out dozens of bags of river trash that had been left behind.

“It was really rewarding to get out and join river lovers of all kinds to beautify and clean out the river,” Isaacson said. “To be sure, removing old inner tubes and beer cans is a much simpler task than mitigating deposited lead.”