Shortsighted practices

Alarms raised by river pollution can't be ignored

Posted: Monday, January 08, 2007

For a long time no one responded to alarms raised over pollution in the Kenai River. The data accumulated but, with a single exception, no one responded. Some interest groups even denied there was a problem; after all, there were no dead fish. Now that pollution has reached a legal threshold requiring action, a response is beginning to be seen. So my question is: Do we, as a community, need to wait for a legal mandate to prevent local environmental problems? Most problems are predictable. Other places have experienced all the growing pains we are going through. Can we learn from them?

Gasoline pollution is one problem on the river, but local environmental professionals agree that accelerating residential development, in its largely liaise-faire state, poses the greatest threat to stream health throughout the peninsula. Models used here to predict the cumulative effects of change confirm that houses, roads, bridges and culverts will significantly degrade stream health in all watersheds that drain private land. The outcome is not inevitable. When done thoughtfully, land can be developed without harming streams.

Retaining water on the land is key to sustainable development. When we build houses, yards, driveways and roads we harden the ground surface and prevent natural soils from soaking up snow melt and rain water. Fast moving water, running off our hardened surfaces, carries all the things we spill or apply to buildings and the ground. Oil leaking from our cars and fertilizer applied to our lawns can be carried away by running water.

The hardened surfaces associated with development also cause water to run off faster, which is as much of a problem as pollution. Small streams on the peninsula, the ones you would never guess have salmon, are some of the most productive. Most juvenile salmon fatten up in these small streams before they go to sea. The peninsula’s network of small streams provides perfect habitat and abundant food for juvenile salmon. But small channels are sensitive to changes in flow.

Accelerated runoff from hardened surfaces of a developed watershed changes the pattern of flow and upsets the equilibrium of the channel; water drains quickly, causing sudden high flows and creating erosion problems. Equilibrium between the stream channel and flowing water is upset, the channel erodes and habitat is lost. Studies across the country show that when development covers around 10 percent of a watershed streams start to degrade. As it turns out streams in Alaska are more sensitive. Studies by the United States Geologic Survey show that Anchorage streams with as little as 4 percent of the watershed hardened exhibit signs of degradation.

Peninsula streams are in generally good shape. With the exception of our few urban areas the concentration of development, and therefore hardened surfaces, is low. It ranges from less than 1 percent in the Deep Creek watershed to 1.6 percent around Stariski Creek.

Some of the subwatersheds on these river systems have development covering up to 2.5 percent of the ground. We are in the enviable position of being able to prevent problems that most of the country has already experienced. Again the key is to design our subdivisions to mimic natural run off.

Simple measures like incorporating large buffers around small streams and avoiding wetlands when subdivisions are platted, are not costly and do not require maintenance. The alternative is exemplified all over the rest of the country. Billions in tax dollars are being spent to retrofit infrastructure, buy back and restore floodplains and restore damaged fish habitat. Preventing the problem is almost free, fixing it is expensive.

There are even short- and long-term financial benefits for developers and homeowners. Lower costs and higher property values can be realized by incorporating these “natural open spaces.” Low interest loans are available for developers and home owners interested in avoiding damage to streams and wetlands. The borough could use the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund to create a revenue positive program that saves everyone money and provides low cost, long-term protection for our waters.

This is not Henny Penny claiming the sky is falling. We are not saying development must stop. Instead, we are recommending that development head off problems by implementing simple solutions.

Sustainable development techniques are well known, we simply need to apply them and to abandon the Alaska mantra “We don’t care how they do it Outside.” We can and should learn from the mistakes of others. To do otherwise is simple-minded folly. Careless use of the land threatens waters important to our economy and lifestyles. We know how to protect these waters, but so far have not exhibited the will to do so. It is time to change from shortsighted development practices to those that provide long-term benefits.

Phillip North has been an ecologist for the federal government for 21 years, the past 16 of those have been spent on the Kenai Peninsula as an aquatic ecologist for the Environmental Protection Agency.

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