Water-quality monitoring on the Kenai River could continue indefinitely, Kenai Watershed Forum director Robert Ruffner said at Tuesday's Soldotna Chamber of Commerce Luncheon.
Although the latest results released show evidence that some actions need to be taken, Ruffner said, it is still too early to tell from these preliminary tests what needs to be done.
"We're still a ways away from being at the point where we can say, 'There's definitely a problem. This is the source of the problem. This is how we fix it,'" said Ruffner, who gave the same presentation to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday. "Given the value of the Kenai River, it's justifiable to do this from now on."
The City of Soldotna is one of the organizations working with the Watershed Forum on this project, providing lab space, supplies and chemical analysis for water samples. Soldotna city manager Tom Boedeker said the program has done its job up to this point.
"This one was set up to simply track data," Boedeker said. "The people doing the study at this point are not interpreting the data."
He said the information found in the study could still be used by Soldotna or by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The most recent results from the water quality monitoring program were taken at three separate times: July 2000, April 2001 and July 2001. Samples were generated from 13 sites on the Kenai River and from seven tributary creeks and rivers as far north as Cooper Landing. The two particular pollutants being tested for -- aromatic hydrocarbons and fecal coliform bacteria -- showed up in varying degrees in some cases, and not at all in most.
But higher-than-allowable levels of fecal coliform, according to standards set by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, were discovered in several of the tributaries and both substances were found in the Kenai River at Cunningham Park. Similarly high levels of aromatic hydrocarbons were found at this site two years in a row, Ruffner said.
In spite of this information, he still has "low confidence" in the results.
"When we go out and sample at seven or eight tributary streams we get zeros across the board," he said, "except for one place where we get almost identical numbers a year apart from each other. I could interpret that to say that there's probably a good chance that those numbers are accurate. I use the caveat 'low confidence' because we didn't do all those duplicates or independent double blind samples to give us the kind of confidence that would be required to do some sort of action to correct the problem."
DEC's standard allows for no more than 10 parts per billion total aromatic hydrocarbons, or run-off from oil products, in water used for aquaculture. Ruffner said any more could harm juvenile fish swimming in the river. At Cunningham Park, counts of 12.11 and 11.85 were found.
A July 2000 test at the Kenai City Dock also peaked above the bar at 10.1, and results the next year came up just below the standard at 9.24. Beaver Creek, the only tributary showing aromatic hydrocarbon counts, recorded 8.5 in 2000 and 7.9 the following year, but did not exceed state standards.
Fecal coliform bacteria, Ruffner said, is waste matter from warm-blooded animals, including dogs, bears, moose and humans. This material is measured to determine whether water can be treated for drinking or used for swimming.
State standards for drinking water sources allow no more than 20 colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters. But water that meets that standard must be treated to completely remove fecal coliform bacteria before it can be used for drinking. In swimming and wading waters, state standards allow an average concentration of no more than 100 colonies per 100 milliliters.
April exams showed evidence of fecal coliform bacteria in several sites on the Kenai River and its tributaries that exceeded state standards for drinking and wading. The highest Kenai River site was Cunningham Park, with 320 colonies, and the highest tributaries were Moose River, with 500 colonies, and Soldotna Creek, with 520 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. Three more tributaries exceeded at least minimum drinking standards along with six sites on the river.
Ruffner said the high numbers in the spring were possibly results of nature and thawing.
"Those numbers that we see in the springtime could all be natural," Ruffner said. "It could all be from moose and bears. There's a long time that the stuff that's on the surface is held up or frozen over the winter time."
By sending identical samples to two different test labs instead of only one, as is now done, and comparing both results against a third, distilled sample, Ruffner said he could determine whether results are constant.
"But that would depend on funding," he said.
The Watershed Forum has sponsored the water-quality monitoring program since 1997 with funding from the DEC, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and several state and federal agencies.
Soldotna began contributing to the program in 1999. Rick Wood, city utilities manager, said Soldotna has connected itself to the project for the long run. He said he believes in the project's importance so much that he has made personal sacrifice to see it continue.
"The city has obligated itself to provide this (service) for the watershed forum as long as they have the project," Wood said. "I volunteer my time to run the analysis for them."
Ruffner said the DEC has provided funding for the program for the past two years through federal grants of $56,000 and $45,000 from the EPA. The state, he said, had more than $1 million to distribute statewide for the last grants.
He said he expects that current results will spur funding for further testing.
"We would hope that they would look at this data and determine that this is something that needs to be done," he said. "If we wanted to add more quality control that would give us more confidence in the data, it would cost us 25 percent more. That's something I would want all partners to agree on."
Ruffner said his organization will apply for a new grant in the spring, after assessing future spending needs.
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