Clearing the water

Community members voice concerns about turbidity problems in the Kenai River

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series examining a Kenai Watershed Forum study showing violations of state water quality standards on the Kenai River. Friday’s story looked at the still-preliminary study results.

Results from an unpublished Kenai Watershed Forum study on turbidity on the Kenai River have caused several hundred community members to petition for a Category 5 Impaired Water Body designation for the river.

Commercial and sportfishing organizations, as well as private citizens and the watershed forum, cited the study in comments to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation on its current statewide biennial listing of impaired waters, which will be finalized and sent to the EPA later this year.

The EPA has not yet determined whether it will override the DEC and require listing the Kenai River as impaired; if that does not happen, the soonest the river could be reclassified is 2014.

Elephant in the room

Per the terms of its contract with the DEC, the watershed forum was not allowed to release the study, or talk about the results.

Tim Stevens, project manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation said the restriction was necessary because the agency doesn’t like to release draft data because incorrect information “gets a life of its own,” and is hard to fix.

However, during the course of the four years it has taken to complete the study, get it peer reviewed and address an error in one of the calculations, word of the results got around.

Members of the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board, were given advanced copies of the draft report.

“The habitat committee of the KRSMA board asked to see that because they wanted to start looking at the data and start working on a fix,” Stevens said. “It wasn’t supposed to get out of the habitat committee but it did.”

Bruce King, a member of the KRSMA habitat board, said the report was not labeled as a draft when it came to his committee.

“I don’t recall ever being told that we couldn’t disseminate this or discuss it,” he said. “My interest is, of course, with the habitat committee and the KRSMA board so I don’t really think in terms of disseminating information to the community.”

Another member of the habitat committee, Ricky Gease, said he was not ready to speak about the report as he had not yet read the latest version.

As soon as the information was released, word spread and more than 450 people petitioned the DEC to include the Kenai River on its 2012 Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report.

Members of the Soldotna City Council discussed preparing for an impairment designation during an October meeting as well.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, the Kenai Watershed Forum and the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Association were among those to petition the DEC to list the river as impaired.

Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, in a statement submitted after he petitioned the DEC wrote that he believed sportfishermen are going to have to change the way the recreate on the river.

“We have to evolve and change the way we boat on the lower river with alternatives such as idling downstream, staggered start times for the guide industry, more drift boat days …,” Kramer said. “If we don’t admit what the experts are telling us about the ill effects of turbidity and continue to resist change for the betterment of our resources, history will show that we didn’t do a good job of protecting our salmon resources in this regard.”

Ken Tarbox, retired Fish and Game biologst, also petitioned the DEC, writing that there was no technical justification to deny listing the Kenai River based on a peer-reviewed study.

“To not list the Kenai River as impaired implies that the DEC is willing to accept the adverse impacts of turbidity on drinking water, recreational, and fish and wildlife resources,” Tarbox wrote. “That is unacceptable under the (Clean Water Act). There is little doubt that the designation uses are being degraded. “

The DEC’s report is due to the EPA every two years, so if the river is not included this year, it will not be recommended for inclusion by the DEC until 2014.

As a result of the petitions on the DEC’s water quality report, the EPA requested all information on turbidity data on the Kenai River according to DEC comments on its draft water body report.

Mark MacIntyre, spokesperson for the EPA, said the agency received the data from the watershed forum’s study Wednesday and would have to review it and get a finalized listing of impaired bodies in Alaska from the DEC before it made any decision on the Kenai River.

“It’s still really early in the process and we’re still considering the information so that’s really all we can say at this time,” MacIntyre said.

If the EPA were to decide that the Kenai River should be listed as impaired, it could override the DEC.

Drew Grant, environmental specialist with the DEC, is tasked with compiling the statewide report to the EPA.

He said the DEC solicits comments from the public as it’s putting together its reports, but ultimately any comment on a water body “comes down to data.”

The data from the watershed forum study had not been reviewed completely and was not ready to be used in the DEC’s decision-making process for impaired water bodies, Stevens said.

Standing behind the data

While the watershed forum’s report was first submitted to the DEC in June 2011, it was just the beginning of the process of getting the results published.

A peer review of the report was completed in June 2012 and an addendum to correct a calculation error was submitted in October.

Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, said he was frustrated that it had taken the DEC so long to complete its review of the study, that the Kenai River couldn’t be listed as impaired in 2012.

The DEC moved much faster when the hydrocarbon impairment was an issue on the river but the lack of an obvious solution seemed to have stalled the project, he said.

“In this case, I’d say they’re not reacting quickly,” he said. “Everybody recognizes ‘Oh gas in the river is a bad thing, if you’re putting hundreds of gallons of gas in the river, you ought to take steps to correct that.”

Stevens said there were several issues that still needed to be addressed including discrepancies between turbidity measurements taken in the same location at the same time.

Another issue is the statewide standard for persistence, which requires that more than 10 percent of the samples exceed the turbidity criteria in order for a water body to be considered impaired, according to DEC listing methodology.

“Obviously Soldotna and Kenai are pretty much fish-centric and that’s what our initial effort was,” Steven said. “Are the levels that we’re seeing high enough to impact fish based on our standards?”

Stevens said his preliminary review of the study suggested that the state’s fish and wildlife turbidity standards had not been exceeded often enough to be considered persistently violated.

However, the same may not be true for recreation and drinking water standards which would still result in an impairment designation for the river.

Ruffner said he was frustrated by the persistence rule.

“The DEC will often say, ‘Well, we’re not exceeding the fish and wildlife standard,’” Ruffner said. “No, you’re exceeding it every single day that there’s lots of boats out there. It’s just not over the threshold time frame.”

Stevens said the DEC was obligated to protect for all three designated uses equally despite knowing that not many people were swimming or drinking from the river.

“We can’t say we only want to enforce for the aquatic life designated use, which kind of puts us in a sticky window because we realize ‘Gee, there probably isn’t anyone drinking out of the Kenai River’ but unless that use is removed, we need to protect for it,” Stevens said.

A community conversation

After Steven’s completes his review of the watershed forum’s report it will have several more people within the ADEC to go through before the agency is ready to release the data.

“We don’t want to go out with a decision and then have somebody start poking holes at the data and saying ‘Oh this isn’t right,’” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re comfortable with the data, that its good data.”

If the DEC were to list the Kenai River as impaired it would likely only be a portion of the lower river where boat traffic is highest, and only during July when boat traffic is heaviest, Stevens said.

Ruffner said the watershed forum would continue to monitor turbidity on the river and hoped its study would be released so the community could examine the issue without being influenced by interest groups.

“We really would like an honest discussion of what the effects are to the fish and what we can do to minimize those deleterious affects,” Ruffner said. “That doesn’t happen because interest groups immediately grab it and say ‘Oh this might adversely affect our interest so we don’t want to see this go forward anymore’ and without a doubt, that type of action has stifled the discussion of this issue.”

Ruffner said the increasingly politicized atmosphere surrounding fishing on the Kenai River has had a chilling affect on discussions based in sound science.

“Ultimately what you really hope is that people do want to do what they say what they want to do, it’s that decisions will be driven by sound science,” he said. “Anything that can be used as an argument to bolster one side of an allocative argument will be taken and used that way.”

Ruffner said he saw it as the state’s responsibility to be “above” the politically-charged arguments and focus on the science.

“When they won’t talk about it and not present it and ask us not to talk about it, and not present it, that doesn’t help anybody,” he said.

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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