Turbidity study on Kenai River 'languishes' at state level

A 2011 study linking boat traffic to violations of state standards for drinking water, recreational use and health of fish and wildlife on the lower Kenai River has yet to make it through a review process at the state level.


The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has no formal approval process for the three-year study though the data could be used to determine whether the Kenai River should be listed as an “impaired water body” on the state’s biennial report to the Environmental Protection Agency on impaired water bodies.

An impaired water body suffers from chronic water quality violations.

The study linked excessive turbidity — a measurement of the amount of light that is scattered as it passed through the water column, the more solids suspended in the water the cloudier it becomes — with boat traffic.

Michelle Bonnet Hale, director of the DEC’s division of water, said there was a delay in deciding how the agency would use the data.

“It’s a particularly difficult issue, we want to make sure we’re making the right decision,” Hale said. “It’s a very high priority for the division of water, we know that this one has languished.”

The Kenai Watershed Forum, a Soldotna-based environmental advocacy organization, was commissioned by the DEC to perform the study and submitted it to the state agency in June, 2011.

A peer review of the report was finished one year later and an addendum was added in October 2012 to correct an error.

However, the report was not released to the public and the data was not mentioned in the state’s preliminary 2012 impaired water bodies report despite a petition to the EPA by several hundred community members in the central peninsula seeking an impaired designation for the river.

The federal agency could override the DEC and require an impaired listing for the Kenai River but Hale said she did not think the EPA had made any formal request to do so.

“EPA and DEC have both looked at the data hard and sliced and diced it, that’s part of what we’re doing right now is trying to come to an agreement with the same voice,” she said.

Hale said part of the difficulty was the complexity of the EPA’s impaired water listing rules — defined under the federal Clean Water Act — and how to define as impaired.

“They’re not really well defined,” she said. “If you list a water as impaired, you want to have the definition of that very clear so that you also know how it will be un-listed.”

The DEC protects the Kenai River for turbidity in three categories: drinking, recreation, and fish and wildlife and turbidity levels considered safe for all three uses were exceeded for several hours in July during all three years of the study.

However, the statewide standard requires persistent violations, or more than 10 percent of samples taken exceeding the turbidity criteria, in order for a water body to be considered impaired, according to DEC impaired listing methodology.

Preliminary review of the data suggested that the state’s fish and wildlife turbidity standards had not been exceeded often enough to be considered persistently violated and while few people may not be drinking or recreating in the Kenai River, Stevens said the state is still required to protect for those uses.

As the study was reviewed at the state level, the Kenai Watershed Forum continued to measure turbidity on the river for the last two years through a Kenai Peninsula Borough grant.

“We haven’t really looked at the data and done a statistical analysis that would be part of a complete study in part because we’re really waiting to hear back from (DEC) about what they would like to know more about,” said Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum. “We would like some guidance based on the work that we’ve given them to date to see if there are outstanding questions that we can make sure that we study to answer or clarify some unknowns.”

Ruffner said the DEC has not been forthcoming with its concerns on the original dataset so the watershed forum plans to study turbidity on the Kenai in July and spend the fall analyzing the data and compiling a report.

“We’ll send them that data, but it’s not — from what we’ve seen — it’s not significantly different than what we’ve submitted to them for the last four or five years,” Ruffner said.

If the watershed forum does not see any response to its data, Ruffner said the organization could consider submitting its data directly to the EPA.

“It is a complicated issue and there are lots of politics associated with anything that changes on the river and I don’t know how to be anymore nice than that ... those are considerations that they have to make,” Ruffner said. “But at some point they need to make a decision on this issue, whether it warrants further attention or not and so far all I’ve see is the desire to put off that decision.”


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


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