A state water report highlighting turbidity problems on the Kenai River has been met with a sharp rebuke by the local advisory board.
KRSMA, the Kenai Special Management Area Advisory Board, signed off on a letter to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation challenging the methods in a recent draft report.
One of the big gripes with this report, among many, is that it’s based on water quality standards for drinking water. That’s the highest level. But at certain times, in certain parts of the river, those standards fall a bit further yet. At peak boating times in July, between the Pillars and the Warren Ames bridge, turbidity levels can get high enough to exceed standards for wildlife and recreation. That section of river lies within the boundaries of the city of Kenai.
At a council meeting last month, former Kenai Watershed Forum executive director Robert Ruffner, explained how the question was even raised in the first place more than ten years ago.
“We were doing boat wake studies with the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers, and sitting on the shoreline, they said ‘hey, this is great that we’re doing all these physical measurements, trying to figure out how much erosion is happening, but you’re measuring the wrong thing. You really ought to be looking at (turbidity).’ And so that’s what started the Watershed Forum down this path in 2007 of collecting this data.”
Along that path, DEC was supposed to have sent a report detailing water quality standards to Congress, as part of the federal Clean Water Act. But this issue has delayed that several times, and the report is overdue. It’s unlikely that the drinking water standard won’t be used to eventually decide if the Kenai river should be listed as impaired.
But the Kenai River Special Management Advisory Board, KRSMA, has a number of other issues it contends should keep the Kenai off that dirty water list. For one, as Ruffner pointed out, the data used is a decade old. A lot has changed on the river since then.
“At the time we were doing some of this work, it was as busy as it gets out there. Things were hopping. So boat use patterns have changed...Assuming this stays on the list and goes through the process, then I think people are going to have to sit down and think what can we do to generate less wakes in this particular zone, and those are all going to be in the mix of things that people could and should be talking about.”
But the KRSMA board is talking more about how to simply keep the Kenai River off the list, by challenging the numbers used to get us here, and also noting regulatory changes that haven’t been taken into account. For example, a portion of the study area around Eagle Rock has been limited to drift boats since those studies were done, and it’s not known what effect that’s had.
The board raised several other concerns in its response to DEC, but there were also concerns within that. Public comment on how to respond to DEC was limited; just one public meeting was held, and most meeting information is available upon email request.
This is all important because the potential fix is a real hot potato: changing or limiting access on parts of the lower Kenai to motor boat traffic.
We’re not there yet, and Ruffner says bringing turbidity levels back in line shouldn’t mean the end of guided fishing from a motor boat on the Kenai.
“This is information I’ve known for a long time. I knew we had turbidity (issues) and I sat through Board of Fisheries meetings and heard arguments about drift boats. And to me, this doesn’t rise to level that we ought to switch from a power boat fishery to a drift boat only fishery.”
In fact, he says you don’t have to look far to find other river sytems that share turbidity characteristics with the Kenai; glacial water sources, tidal influence, that have problems that pose a more immediate threat to salmon.
“Like in the Mat-Su where they’ve got pike that have gotten out of control. There’s also a number of (invasive) plants and so forth that can do some damage. But...this is not the end of the world.”
With KRSMA’s letter in hand, the DEC will revise its draft report before submitting a final version to the federal government.