Permit may delay Sport Lake elodea killing

Elodea could be eliminated from Sport Lake near Soldotna before native vegetation emerges and before the summer crowd of pilots and boaters arrive, but only if a minimum 70-day state permitting process is sped up. Otherwise, the lake’s popular state-run boat launch will likely close this summer.

 

On Feb. 22, staff from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game found fragments of elodea, a habitat-choking invasive waterweed, while drilling holes for an ice-fishing event for elementary school children on Sport Lake. Since 2012, a state-wide eradication effort has been fighting the fast-spreading aquatic weed, originally imported from the Lower 48 as an aquarium plant. Elodea can grow in masses thick enough to deoxygenate water and destroy fish habitat. Its asexual reproduction ability lets it spread between lakes via fragments that are able to survive out of water for days, carried in boat propellors and floatplane rudders.

Sport Lake, one of the central Kenai Peninsula’s most popular recreational lakes, has the potential to distribute the weed further. In addition to the boat launch, the small lake just outside Soldotna has a state-stocked population of rainbow trout and coho salmon and several floatplanes docked in front of houses along its shore.

On April 3, Peter Johnson of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Plant Materials Center applied to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Pesticide Control Program for permits to use two pesticides — the fast-acting contact killer diquat and the slow-releasing fluridone — in Sport Lake. The pair of herbicides were successfully used to wipe out elodea in three infested Nikiski lakes between 2014 and 2015.

Before the DEC — the state agency responsible for water quality — can permit these herbicides in Sport Lake, state code requires a 30-day public comment period, which is presently open, and a minimum 40-day wait period. This process would allow the herbicides to be put into the lake in July at the earliest. In the meantime, elodea monitors will be making more precise surveys of the Sport Lake elodea’s quantity and location during May and June.

The Sport Lake elodea was accidentally discovered at an opportune time — most elodea discoveries come in the summer — but the permitting process will likely prevent eradicators from taking advantage of it. Elodea continues to grow beneath ice while native plants spend the winter dormant, allowing herbicides applied early to weaken it with less danger of collateral damage to other plants. Early application would also cut the elodea population before boats and planes become potential vectors for its spread, said John Morton, the supervisory fish and wildlife biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, who worked on planning and executing the Nikiski lake eradications.

“If we didn’t have the permitting process, the optimal prescription would be for us to treat elodea with diquat right after ice-out,” Morton said. “… Our preference would be to go in there immediately in early June. But we’re restricted by the permitting process.”

Since herbicide applications may not start until July, Fish and Game will likely close Sport Lake’s popular boat launch. A similar closure at Nikiski’s Stormy Lake, another popular boating site, during its elodea infestation had been an effective measure against spreading the weed, said Matt Steffy of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District.

The permit application for the Sport Lake herbicide treatment began its 30-day comment period on Tuesday, with the 40 day wait to follow. The possibility of speeding up the permitting process was a frequent subject of conversation at a public meeting Wednesday about the Sport Lake elodea, with many expressing frustration at the regulatory delay.

Many speakers at the meeting referred to the elodea infestation in Anchorage’s Lake Hood — located on the grounds of the Anchorage International Airport and used as one of the world’s busiest floatplane bases — that broke out in summer 2015. For that lake, DEC recognized the possibility that the weed could propagate to remote sites via floatplane — as well as the navigational hazards the infestation posed to planes and subsequent economic damage from a loss of floatplane activity — when it gave emergency permits for diquat and fluridone treatments without the 70-day permit process.

For the Lake Hood work, DNR applied for an emergency permit with a speedier process that Alaska’s administrative code allows groups to request in situations that pose a “risk to human health, risk to the environment, or economic loss.” DNR hasn’t applied for the exception in the Sport Lake case, said DEC Environmental Program Manager Bob Blankenburg, whose department will be granting the permit. Without that exception, shortening the wait period isn’t within his department’s discretion, Blankenburg said.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, said he planned to “explore whether or not (the permit) can be accelerated, and if it can, make sure we can make that request.”

Navarre said he plans to talk about the issue with the commissioners of the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Natural Resources and Fish and Game.

Comments on the Sport Lake permit application can be emailed to DEC’s Pesticide Program Coordinator Rebecca Colvin at Rebecca.colvin@alaska.gov. Further information can be found at the state’s online public notice website, at aws.state.ak.us/OnlinePublicNotices.

The issue may also get some attention from the Alaska Legislature. House Bill 177, a measure introduced by Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) and referred to the Alaska House of Representatives Resources Committee on March 14, would allow Fish and Game to “apply for suspension of … applicable environmental laws and regulations” in cases involving invasive species such as elodea. The bill would also create a fund dedicated to invasive species response, to be filled by legislative appropriation.

Though Fish and Game has participated in elodea eradication, much of the work so far has been done by members of DNR, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, and local partner organizations that, on the peninsula, include the Kenai Watershed Forum, Homer Soil and Water Conservation District and the Kenai Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area. Though elodea is not officially on Fish and Game’s list of concerns, Steffy said the bill’s reference to “invasive species” could potentially apply to elodea. Though Steffy said he thinks the bill was flawed, he said it is “a good start” that would “provide moral direction for raising awareness” of the problem of invasives.

Currently, no hearings are scheduled for HB 177.

If the Sport Lake eradication plans go according to schedule, Morton said its elodea population would be substantially diminished this year, and the population would be negligible by spring 2018.

The previous eradication of elodea from Daniels, Beck and Stormy Lakes cost about $500,000 and was taken from money the borough allocated to fight elodea in 2013. Purging the weed from the smaller Sport Lake is expected to cost about $40,000, partly coming from the remains of the borough appropriation.

The diquat and fluriodone treatment the refuge used successfully in the Nikiski lakes is now a well-practiced strategy, having also been used against infestations in Lake Hood and Alexander Lake in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The public process of elodea application has also become smoother. Janice Chumley of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service was present at the meetings about elodea eradication in the Nikiski lakes, and said Wednesday’s meeting was far calmer than elodea presentations in the past, when there was greater fear and concern about the herbicide treatments.

“I remember the public meeting in Nikiski — there were a lot of vocal folks,” Chumley said. “People were upset, people were thinking it was going to kill the swans and it was going to be a horror show.”

Stacey Oliva owns land on the shore of the previously-infested Daniels Lake. Though she said she’d been leery of the herbicide treatment at first, she spoke at Wednesday’s meeting about what she’s seen after elodea treatment.

“The outcome has been for us, positive,” she said. “We had so many more salmon spawning on the lakeshore — that is, dead bodies on the lakeshore, basically — this last fall than we’ve had in years. So I thought, ‘This is working.’ So I think getting rid of elodea really had a positive impact on the spawning beds.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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