Diggings logo

WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Up River


By Ruth Watkins, Program Director, Tri-State Water Quality Council

Those of us living within the vast region stretching from Butte, Montana westward through the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys, across northern Idaho to Newport and Metaline Falls, Washington, have diverse backgrounds and perspectives, but we all have one thing in common: we are all residents in the 16-million-acre Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed.

Starting at the headwaters of the Clark Fork River near Butte, the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed of the Upper Columbia Basin drains an extensive 26,000 square miles in the northern Rockies, spanning western Montana, northern Idaho and northeastern Washington. The watershed consists of Montana's largest river, the Clark Fork; Montana's Flathead Lake, the nation's largest lake west of the Mississippi River; Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho's largest lake; and Washington's Pend Oreille River.

So, what is a watershed, and how are we connected by it? A watershed can best be defined as an area of land that is drained by a distinct stream or river system and is separated from other similar systems by ridge-top boundaries. Often called a drainage basin, a watershed can cover a large multi-state area, such as the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed, or a relatively small area, like the watershed of a pond. Rain and snow that falls in a watershed is either absorbed into the soil, or evaporates, or flows over land. This overland flow of water--often referred to as runoff--picks up soil particles, excess nutrients, harmful bacteria, and chemical pollutants along the way and continues to flow downslope, eventually reaching the stream or river that drains the watershed. It is in this way that streams, rivers and lakes can become polluted.

Because water flows downhill and downstream and carries with it whatever is contained in runoff from the land, pollutants introduced into the watershed near Butte or Missoula or Sandpoint can end up in Washington's Pend Oreille River. Because the Pend Oreille River is the most downstream point in the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed, protection of the river's water quality not only involves local efforts, but depends upon improvements to upstream water quality as well.

Our large watershed is home to many diverse forms of life, including thousands of species of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, insects, and vegetation. As for human inhabitants, archeological and other historical evidence suggests that Native Americans lived from one end of the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed to the other since at least the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. Living simply and close to the land, these people hunted, fished, gathered wild plants and constructed temporary dwellings, taking only as much as was needed in order to sustain their lives.

White settlers first began arriving in the early 1800’s with the Lewis and Clark expedition that scouted a passage to the Pacific Ocean (and named the Clark Fork River along the way). However, it was not until the 1862 Homestead Act, which promised free land to those willing to stay long enough, that settlers began arriving in large numbers. Many were lured by dreams of gold; others sought room to grow. Whatever the motivation, many of the newcomers viewed the mountains, waters, wildlife and vegetation from a different perspective than that of the native people.

In Montana, mining became king, as gold, silver and copper were claimed from the mountains around Butte. Railroads, timber cutters, cattle and commerce followed the mines and Missoula became the major trade center of the new western region. Along the upper Clark Fork River, mining wastes quickly made their way into the river, which often ran red from toxic metals pollution, even until as recently as the 1970's.

In Idaho, natural resources began luring settlers during the 1860's. A Pony Express route was established from Oregon and Washington across the region and steamboats that crossed Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River became a key link in the early western mail route. Logging and mining around the lake flourished through the early 1900’s; by the late 1920’s much of the timber had been logged. Since the 1940's, the excellent fishery and beauty of the Lake Pend Oreille has inspired the development of resorts and homes around the shoreline.

Today, nearly 350,000 people inhabit the watershed, from Silver Bow County, Montana to Pend Oreille County, Washington. In Montana, nearly one-third of the state's residents--or about 300,000 people--live in the Clark Fork basin, with the greatest concentration of growth occurring where the Clark Fork meets the Bitterroot and also in the Flathead valley. Around Lake Pend Oreille, Bonner County has about 37,000 residents, with a current growth rate reaching 38 percent. At the most downstream point of the three-state watershed, Pend Oreille County is currently home to about 12,000 people. The many attractive qualities of our watershed's landscape--mountains, clean water, and abundant recreational opportunities--are luring growing numbers of people here from across the nation, putting increased pressure on a delicate ecosystem.

A rural and urban mix of diverse land uses and human activities have lead to a range of water quality issues across the watershed. Heavy metals, deposited as mining waste along the upper Clark Fork's banks and floodplain from past mining, continue to result in fish kills along 200 miles of the river; these toxic metals have also settled on the bottom sediments of downstream waterbodies. Additionally, pollution from excessive nutrients is occurring across the watershed as a result of stormwater runoff, municipal and industrial wastewater discharges, shoreline development, land disturbances, stream alterations, and the depletion of shoreline vegetation.

By acting as a fertilizer, excessive nutrients promote the growth of dense algae and aquatic weed beds that choke many tributaries, along with some 250 miles of the upper and middle Clark Fork, the nearshore areas around Lake Pend Oreille, and the Pend Oreille River. Excessive algae and aquatic weed growth depletes water of life-sustaining oxygen, which poses a threat to endangered fish species, aquatic life, and people.

There are a number of organizations working to reduce pollution across the watershed. However, efforts to protect our water must keep pace with rapid population growth and increasing urbanization. Restoring the natural balance and protecting the clean water that has drawn people to the watershed in the first place---that is the critical challenge now facing all of us who live in this Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed that we call home.

<----previous article...Diggings Jan 2004...next article---->