River debris removal moving forward

Abandoned cars.

Collapsed metal bridges.

Old fences rusting and blocking the path of spawning fish.

These are just a few of the things John Czarnezki has on his to-do list.

They aren’t necessarily the Kenai Peninsula Borough resource planner’s favorite things to see, especially when they are leaving footprints on the Kenai Peninsula’s various watersheds.

But, from now through the winter, whatever water debris Czarnezki finds, or is made aware of, that could be causing damage to the area’s streams, lakes and coastal areas will be added to that list.

It’s a sizable river cleanup effort.

Czarnezki is currently spearheading the effort, but he knows it will require the work of many, including the residents who have already been contacting him with items to add to his list.

“The Kenai River is a good example — a lot of cleanup has gone on over the past several decades and we know we have similar situations on some other streams as well,” he said.

Czarnezki’s work is part of a program made possible through about $74,000 in grants received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior’s Coastal Impact Assistance program.

The effort aims to remove hazardous debris that has found its way into sensitive watersheds through poor past practices or natural causes, Czarnezki said. The junk can obviously turn into more than just an eyesore and either has, or could lead to, a number of navigational and environmental hazards.

“We know we have these issues across the Peninsula,” Czarnezki said.

The idea is to gather a list of the offenses and tackle the most potentially damaging ones first, he said.

“We want to document as much information as we can and then once we get that all done, we’ll sit down and create some rating criteria to try and prioritize them,” Czarnezki said. “Then we try and get as many accomplished as we can based on the dollars we have.”

Last week marked the beginning of Czarnezki’s likely multiple trips out to investigate debris reports. The junk has been piling up for some time, due in part, he thinks, to poor past practices of river and watershed management.

Some of the materials once used to protect and maintain the river just decades ago are now considered unthinkable to use, he explained.

Barrels and old car parts, for example.

“Just downstream of the river here we have got a jetty made out of an old Caterpillar tracks and wheels,” he said. “What was happening at the time was kind of a fix-it-yourself kind of a deal and people used what they had and they did it. We wouldn’t think of doing it today, but those things exist.”

Also, some folks “just aren’t interested in the impacts of some of their actions,” he said.

“They are neglectful in that aspect and we do deal with and see a lot of abandoned vehicles that are dumped in a flood plain and just left there for someone else to take care of,” Czarnezki explained. “Unfortunately you see it quite a bit.”

Things like gas, grease, antifreeze, transmission fluid and any number of toxic substances could be seeping into the water and potentially causing damage to the environment and the fishery as a result of those vehicles, he said.

Another item on the list is a broken and collapsed fence that is blocking one of the two river channels in Soldotna Creek that allows fish to pass through.

“Again, it’s all bad stuff for the fish,” he explained.

Czarnezki hopes to have his categorizing and prioritizing completed in time to start some of the debris removal before the snow flies. However, he said most of the work would be contracted out early next spring.

Access will also play a factor in how the project moves forward, he said.

“Some of these (items) are very remote and might be very expensive just to get to,” he said. “Access is definitely going to play a role as far as whether we can do a lot or a little. We might have one high-ranking project that causes fish passage problems or might be some kind of toxic chemical coming out.

“Those are going to be our priorities to get those out and we may have to work with (other agencies) to try and get a more immediate response.”

Czarnezki is hoping when the $74,000 runs out, the debris removal program won’t go belly up and the issue doesn’t become forgotten.

“They go from being off the radar to on the radar — so we are at least aware of them,” he said. “That way, we may have opportunities down the road, even if they don’t rank high and we don’t have enough funds to get them, down the road we may be working with these property owners. … We can leverage cost share dollars that are out there to try and get some of these things taken care of.”

The project, he contends, is going to be interesting to watch unfold and continue to evolve.

“It is going to be interesting to see … how much can we do for $75,000,” he said.  “I’m sure that we will end up with only a portion of them that we can accomplish, but at least we’ll have our finger on them and know where they are and have targets for down the road.”