Good news for everyone who values clean water! The Hayden Lake Project got a gold star on its first official report card.

What The Hayden Lake Project Is:

The project, which launched in 2009 and operates under the direction of Kootenai Environmental Alliance (KEA), conducts water quality research in and around Hayden Lake. It uses new technologies and science-backed methods that are well proven to help clean up polluted water in other parts of the world, but are new in our neck of the woods. Its first goal: to make Hayden Lake and its struggling fishery pristine again, without using herbicides, weed mats, and other short-term treatments that address only the lake’s symptoms while ignoring their underlying causes. The ultimate goal: to share what the project learns in Hayden Lake with other area lakes.

Floating Islands Do The Heavy Lifting.

Manmade floating islands planted with cattails, sedges, and other wetland plants — called floating treatment wetlands, or FTW — are the centerpiece of the Hayden Lake Project. While FTWs aren’t exactly new (the concept has been around for about 50 years), the materials they’re made of today, and the most effective methods for maintaining them, are cutting edge. As a result, the latest versions of FTWs can be nearly 200 times more powerful than natural wetlands, acting as natural bioprocessors that convert the excess phosphorus and other pollutants in our surface waters into something good: natural fish food.

Good Science, Promising Results!

Julie Van Middlesworth, a Geochemist and instructor of Environmental Science and Geology at North Idaho College, recently mentored two college students conducting a research project. The goal of the project was to see whether an FTW launched last fall in a heavily polluted pond on Hayden Lake’s northeast watershed was having any effect. The project was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Weekly samples collected at the pond’s inlet, at midpond (where the FTW is moored), and at the pond’s outlet consistently showed significant improvement in measures of water quality, during the time of year when previous years’ samples showed deteriorating water quality. The measured improvements included significant reduction in phosphorus, E. coli and total coliforms, and a significant increase in water pH (meaning the water became less acidic — another healthy sign). At the same time, our photodocumentation of the pond’s appearance year after year show that while it’s not exactly pretty this year, it looks and smells a heck of a lot better than it did in previous years. That’s pretty amazing, considering the FTWs were launched less than a year ago.

What’s Next?

We’re nowhere near being finished. Since FTWs convert the pollutants into natural fish food, the next step is to provide fish to gobble it up. So Kootenai Environmental Alliance is calling upon the fishing experts among its members to catch Large Mouth Bass, Black Crappie, Yellow Perch, and Bluegill fish in Hayden and Fernan Lakes (with all the proper permits and with Idaho Fish & Game’s enthusiastic support), and release those fish in the pond. When they’ve gotten big on the rich smorgasbord the FTW produces year-round, we’ll bring young anglers to help us feed the area’s hungry. That’s the key to success of the project: It’s a cycle of productivity. Turn the excess nutrients that pollute the water into natural fish food, add fish to eat the food, then harvest the fish. In a similar study in Montana, each fish-harvest phase removed as much as five pounds of phosphorus from the test pond.


It’s a very exciting approach to the problems facing our lakes, streams, rivers, and fisheries. Of course we need to get tough with the factors that are causing so much pollution to enter the waters. That’s a must. But until now, the only efforts to deal with the nutrients that have already poured in, have focused only on the symptoms — herbicides and mats to suppress the weeds, chemicals and restrictions to keep the algae blooms from causing health catastrophes, large scale stocking to boost the declining fishery, more chemical treatments to help mask the cloudy water and the smell. All those efforts are expensive, and they are of questionable safety and efficacy, especially in the long-term. But when conducted as a seasonal cycle, with fish production and harvest as its endpoint, the FTW approach improves water quality, boosts the fishery, and feeds people, all without chemicals and without worry about some unexpected side effect popping up years down the road.

We have been working hard to garner community support and are amassing an enthusiastic army of volunteers to help with the on-the-ground work and donations to pay for materials and laboratory analyses. For more information about FTWs and the Hayden Lake Project, contact Adrienne at the KEA Coeur d’Alene office: 208-667-9093.

Author: Karen Hayes, KEA Board Members