Winchester Lake is a reservoir on the Middle Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River, in Kootenai County, Idaho. The lake is part of the Post Falls Project, which connects the Upper and Lower forks of the Coeur d’Alene River with the Post Falls Reservoir. The lake has an area of 2,300 acres (970ha), a shoreline of 400 miles (640km), and a maximum depth of about five feet (1.5m). The lake was created by construction of the Coeur d’Alene Dam, upstream from the existing dam at Atholville, between 1968 and 1974.
Inland Sea-Doo water sports center is located on the north side of the park, just east of the lake. Fishing for perch, rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, smallmouth bass, white sucker, northern pike, bullhead catfish, crappie, and crayfish are popular activities. There is also a marina with over 100 mooring spaces, as well as campgrounds, cabins, lodges, swimming beach, playgrounds, equestrian trails, picnicking facilities, boat launch, and two golf courses.
A paved road that winds through sagebrush leads to the top of the dam, where there is a vista point offering views of both the lake and surrounding mountains. At least one coyote roams around the perimeter of the lake, but it is not considered dangerous. Also numerous birds migrate past the lake each year, attracted by the warm waters of this location near the Canadian border. These include pelicans, who stop during summer, along with loons, grebes, and double-crested cormorants; trumpeter swans, who nest farther south than most other North American populations; boreal owls, whose calls can be heard late into autumn; and many different raptors, especially those of the falcon family. The Post Falls Project provides irrigation water for farms and ranches throughout southeast Idaho, eastern Washington, and western Montana. Water is impounded in the 1,250-acre (510ha) reservoir, which lies between the confluence of the Palouse and Rocky Mountains and the Columbia River Plateau.
The project consists of three dams, all earthfill embankment dams constructed using locally quarried stone. They were built starting in 1971, and completed in 1974. The original dam was 142 feet (43m) high, 5,200 feet (1,500m) long, and 750 feet (230m) thick at its base. It generated 3,600 kilowatts (4,000kW) when operating, which would have provided enough electricity for 20,000 homes. It was called the “biggest damn thing ever made”. The second dam was built downstream, replacing the first dam’s hydroelectric generation. This dam was 165 feet (50m) high, 6,100 feet (1,800m) long, and had a generating capacity of 7,000 kilowatts (8,000kW). The third dam, which was also an Earthfill dam, was built across the outlet channel of the previous dam. Its name was changed to Fairview Dam because it resembles the profile of a ship’s bow. It is 230 feet (70m) high, 8,900 feet (2,700m) long, and 2,400 feet (730m) thick at its base.
Each dam generates approximately 25,000 acre-feet (26,000,000m3) annually, or roughly 26 million US gallons (81,000l) per day, which flows down the Coeur d’Alene River toward Lake Pend Oreille in northeastern Washington. The total project cost was estimated at $55 million in 1970, and eventually exceeded $75 million. By 1974 inflation costs alone had pushed the figure up to nearly $150 million.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operated the lake until 1992, when management was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Idaho Department of Lands. Winchester Lake became the largest inland sea-doo facility west of the Mississippi River, drawing more than 200,000 visitors per year. But after several years of heavy rain, the lake became seriously polluted, prompting public concern and lawsuits against the state.
To settle the issues, the state agreed to turn over control of the lake to a private contractor, Inland Seasports, run by Jack Mann. Mann immediately set about turning the lake into a premier fishing destination, marketing it under the brand name of “Inland Sea-Doo.” He installed a new dock, added fish cleaning stations, expanded parking, upgraded roads, developed trails, and even opened up a zip line. While some locals grumbled, overall response to the improvements was positive, and within a few years attendance and revenues climbed significantly. After making a profit for four consecutive years, Mann decided he could do better if he turned the entire operation over to a professional manager. He sold the company to a group led by local businessman Curt Webb in 1997, and retired soon afterwards.
When the state took back control of the lake in 1998, they found a scene of utter chaos. Bedsores covered the floor of the lodge, unkempt lawns surrounded the lake, and trash piled up outside the main entrance. Fearing the impact of rising fuel costs, coupled with lower water usage due to the drought, the state decided to close the lake to the public, let the contracts expire with the plumbing and electrical companies, and begin the process of decommissioning the whole complex.
However, unlike so many other parks and recreation areas in southeastern Idaho, Winchester Lake does get significant use from people living nearby. The lake is still open to hunting, and deer and elk may be taken legally within certain limits. Campsites remain available, and are occupied mostly by campers rather than hunters. Non-hunting visitors may drive onto the grounds to access the lake and leave their vehicles in the park overnight. There is a 10-mile speed limit on the lake, and no boating above designated power limits. No wakeboarding or waterskiing is allowed. Canoes, kayaks, rowboats, and pedal boats must be non-powered, i.e., human powered only. Motorized boats must be battery or human powered. Boats equipped with inboard engines larger than 15hp are prohibited.
There is a nominal daily vehicle entry fee, although it is waived for residents with permits. For out-of-state visitors, there is a $7 charge for single-day or annual permit. The following state parks are within 30 miles (48km) of Winchester Lake State Recreation Area: Eastern Shore – This section of the lake is closest to the residential area of the city of Post Falls. Accessible via a dirt road, the undeveloped shore offers space for camping, hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoor recreational activities. There are no restroom facilities, and little shade, so the park is mainly used by people coming straight from work
- equestrian trails
Other wildlife seen includes:
- black bears
- river otters
- ground squirrels
- sandhills full of wild turkeys.
Birds observed include:
- owls such as:
- screech owls
- red-tailed hawks
- bald eagles
- trumpeter swans
- canada geese
- snow geese
- duck species