The elephant in the room

In the late 1970s, landowners along the Kenai were outraged when told by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that they could no longer dump fill on their wetlands. In the 1980s, many boaters were more than a little bit peeved when the state placed a 35-horsepower limit on the Kenai, forcing them to buy a new motor -- or motor and boat. In 2008, many of these same boaters were once again riled when the state initiated a 4-year plan to remove older-technology 2-stroke motors from the Kenai. Now comes turbidity caused by boat wakes.


That boat wakes cause turbidity -- a highfalutin' word for muddy water -- is nothing new. The first time a motorized boat went up the Kenai, when its wake hit the bank, it no doubt muddied the water a little bit. With the sharp increase in boat traffic on the Kenai over the past 40-some years, that "little" has raised enough concern about the river's health to cause meetings to be held, studies to be initiated and bureaucrats to be involved.

The trouble with turbidity caused by boat wakes is that it negatively affects little things most of us seldom see, important things like insects and young salmon. Because we don't see these things, we don't see a problem. We don't even realize when these key pieces of the river puzzle are gone.

Key pieces undoubtedly are going. A 1998 assessment of the lower Kenai by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicated that some already are gone. According to the study, there were "significant" differences in the amount of aquatic life found in stream-bottom sediments above and below urbanized areas, suggesting "habitat changes or possible cumulative impacts from water quality degradation."

Due to increasing concerns about the harmful effects of turbidity caused by boat wakes, the Kenai Watershed Forum began monitoring it in the lower Kenai in 2008. It's quite possible that findings of these studies could trigger another "impaired" listing for the Kenai, and that actions will have to be taken to reduce or eliminate boat wakes.

The process of finding a "fix" for the turbidity problem will generate its own waves, and they'll be mountainous. Many people won't even acknowledge that turbidity is a problem. They'll say, "Lots of rivers are muddier than the Kenai, and they still have salmon." People with investments in boats, motors, land, homes, lodges, docks and other "improvements" will fight to keep what they've got. Sides will be taken, fingers pointed.

A major problem facing those in favor of reducing the turbidity caused by boat wakes is that few of the effects of turbidity can be quantified. No one can answer the question, "How many more salmon will the Kenai River produce if all motors are banned?"

If you thought previous battles over the Kenai were fierce, you haven't seen anything. I can already hear it: "You believe that garbage? The head of that group is a commercial fisherman! Those salmon chokers will do anything to get back some of the fishing time they've lost because of all the sport fishing on the Kenai."

"If it wasn't for there being too many fishing guides, we wouldn't be having this problem."

"I blame it all on Bob Penney. Before he came along, there was plenty of fish for everyone."

I'm conflicted about this turbidity thing. I'm no biologist, but I've seen what boat wakes do. Aside from what's happening with sediments, I don't believe a juvenile salmon can make a living in the surf-like environment along the banks of the lower Kenai in July, when boat traffic is at its peak. If I were thinking solely about the health of the river, I'd say it should be "drift only," no motors allowed. On the other hand, I have a 40-year history of fishing at places and using fishing methods that require the use of a motor. The ramifications of a total ban of motors would be huge to me, as would any limit on my use of the river.

This is one of those issues that we either solve ourselves, or we wait for the government to solve for us. The government, with its strict water-quality standards, is already involved. At the very least, it's time we acknowledged the elephant in the room.

Les Palmer can be reached at


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Author’s note: The Clarion first published this column on Aug. 11, 2006. It has been edited it for brevity. — LP

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